Why was this Earth Day different from all other Earth Days?
There were many reasons. For one thing, this year’s national celebration of the planet turned 50. For another, this Earth Day, celebrated on Wednesday, Apr. 22, occurred in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, Earth Day 2020 was the first to take place entirely online.
But lest you think a virtual celebration of Earth Day is less momentous than the usual live Earth Day observances, think again.
“People often describe online gatherings as ‘virtual,’ as if they aren’t fully real,” says Joelle Novey, a Baltimore native and director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that supports congregations of all faiths in their responses to climate change. “We are real people here on this specific planet on the 50th Earth Day. We are really interdependent with each other and with the natural world. Our pollution is really trapping heat, damaging our global climate and causing real harm.
“And so all of us are called to protect and to restore,” she says. “This is the central reality we face.”
First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day was the brainchild of the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin who was determined to raise awareness about environmental issues. Nelson’s efforts paid off. Not only did public support for protecting the environment increase dramatically post-Earth Day, that support led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and in the following decade, the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Despite those advances, 97 percent of scientists now agree that we must take bold action against climate change if we are to save the planet.
“It’s been tremendous to see the great progress we’ve made [in 50 years], and humbling to see all the work that is still necessary,” says Jakir Manela, CEO of the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown. “It’s as if we have lifted a huge weight to the top of the mountain and found it was only the foothills.
“We are the first generation to see the real consequences and impacts of climate change, and the last generation to be able to do something significant to prevent it. We must take action in the next decade.”
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, a nonprofit launching this month. The mission of the New York-based Dayenu is “to mobilize American Jews to confront the climate crisis with bold political action and spiritual audacity,” says the rabbi. “This is the greatest existential crisis and issue of our time, and not all Jewish communities are showing up.”
Though admitting she never would have opted to launch Dayenu during a pandemic, Rabbi Rosenn says now realizes that the impact of the coronavirus has made the need for climate action even more crucial.
“There are so many commonalities [between the pandemic and the climate crisis],” she says. “If there was ever a question of how profoundly connected we are with each other, it is now. We see how what happens seemingly far away in a different ecosystem impacts us.”
In addition, says the rabbi, “The coronavirus has made us realize how vulnerable we are and shown us that our systems are not resilient or robust. We can’t assume that our governments will protect us. And we now get, in a new way, how much we must act.”
Another similarity between the coronavirus and climate change is that both crises “affect everyone, but disproportionately affect black, Hispanic and poor people,” says Rabbi Rosenn.
Novey echoes that sentiment. “A lot of [people involved in the climate change movement] talk about climate justice,” she says. “There is a lot of injustice in the way we impose air pollution and toxicity on the poor and communities of color. As we can see, the pandemic is also playing out in unjust ways, with people of color dying disproportionately. One explanation for that is that black folks already have respiratory problems due to air pollution [in their neighborhoods.].”
Still, Rabbi Rosenn sounds a cautiously optimistic tone and says the pandemic could present opportunities for much needed change.
“I’m hopeful that we are all realizing on deeper and deeper levels how insufficient our systems are and that we need bold collective action,” she says. “The devastation of COVID-19 is bringing a realization of the need to rebuild the world so that all people can live vibrant, healthy lives for generations to come.”
Looking for suggestions on how to observe Earth Day 50 this year?
Check out the following resources:
Pearlstone Center’s online Earth Day activities included “edible nature walks” and “Bird Language” videos by wilderness educator Joey Murry; the Earth Day Art Challenge; and an at-home scavenger hunt. For information, visit pearlstonecenter.org/
Earth Day 50th Anniversary at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Joelle Novey and Rabbi Jennie Rosenn were among the participants in this interfaith service that was videotaped on Sunday, Apr. 19. The program featured leaders from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Church of the Latter-Day Saints, Muslim, Sikh and Unitarian Universalist communities who contributed sacred text readings, commentary, discussions and music. For information, visit cathedral.org/earthday.
A website created especially for Earth Day 2020, Earthday.org is a clearinghouse of sorts for climate change action. Visit the site for messages, performances, calls to action and to learn about other events taking place on Earth Day and during Earth Week.
Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability
Hazon presented “Sound the Call,” an international shofar-blowing call to action for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The Zoom event began at 11 a.m. on Apr. 22, and the communal shofar blowing was at noon. More than 1,000 people participated from around the world. “We blow shofar at a time of celebration, at a time of alarm, and as a call to teshuva, to repentance and to changing our behaviors,” Nigel Savage, Hazon’s CEO, said in a statement. The lineup of speakers and entertainers at the event included “Homeland” star Mandy Patinkin, environmental leader Bill McKibben and singer- songwriter Neshama Carlebach. On Apr. 23, Hazon sent an open letter to Congress affirming the goals of investing in health care and green legislation for a sustainable world. For information, visit https://hazon.org/calendar/soundthecall-this-earth-day/.
Interfaith Power and Light
Interfaith Power and Light and nine other organizations sponsor “We Hold the Earth,” a national climate prayer for 2020 on April 22. For information, click here.