The 50th Earth Day celebration takes place amid a global, existential threat—a pandemic that has sickened millions, killed thousands, and ground businesses and economies to a near halt.
In 1970, when it was first observed, some 20 million people took to the streets and protested the multifold environmental crises of oil spills, smog and polluted rivers. Participants demanded that their governments take concrete action on these crises, specifically by passing environmental laws and establishing environmental agencies.
Today, the commemoration of International Mother Earth Day takes place indoors and online, as billions of people are locked down or are sheltered in place.
Prior to COVID-19, the biggest global issue was the rapid warming of the planet. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Emission Gap Report, at the end of this year global carbon dioxide emissions need to have dropped by 7.6 percent, and continue to drop at the same rate every year, to maintain the heating of the planet under 1.5 degrees Celsius.
If the warming continues to be higher than this limit, catastrophic climate events are expected to visit upon many parts of the globe in the coming years.
These days, as government and business leaders scramble to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, an unintended consequence is the drastic reduction in economic activity that in turn significantly reduces emissions.
To say however that the pandemic occasioned some good for the climate cause would be a hasty conclusion and a gross oversimplification; after all, the near-stoppage of economic activity is taking an enormous toll on incomes, jobs and people’s survival. Aside from the crisis faced by patients, their families, medical frontliners and entire hospital systems, hunger and displacement are specters that are just as devastating for millions of global citizens.
Those of us fortunate enough to not have to go out of their homes to earn a living can pause and rethink whether our way of life before the crisis would still be acceptable in a post-COVID world. Were the things we deemed important to achieve actually that? What constitutes “importance,” anyway? Were our routines in keeping with optimizing our existence in all aspects, or were we living in manic pursuit of things that we thought would make us happy? Were we giving back to others and to the environment, or were we too busy acquiring and consuming for ourselves? Were we mindful about the planet we could leave for the next generations, or were we all about instant gratification?
Earth and its inhabitants are under siege. May we use these crucial days to imagine how we could be spared from the pestilence, and how we can live differently after we have been given the time to reflect.