Let’s Talk About Earth Day

Any one of my friends can tell you that Earth Day is one of my all-time favorite days of the year. Why? Is it because everyone is on the same environmental frequency as me for the day? Is it because it’s the only day I get to pick up trash without people wondering where I left my orange jumpsuit? Maybe. More importantly though, I love earth day for what it represents, what it has accomplished, and most of all, what it has the potential to be.

We must understand the origins of this holiday to fully comprehend its significance. Similar to how 2017 and 2018 have been, 1970 was a time of environmental turmoil, as well as social and political tension. As war raged in Vietnam and protests became a common occurrence, environmental awareness began to grow. The original organizers of earth day, inspired by the student led ant-war movement, aimed to bridge social justice activism and science. And that’s exactly what they did. April 22, 1970 was a day of widespread political action, civic participation, and mass mobilization as millions of people took to the streets to protest environmental degradation from 150 years of industrial expansion.

This movement was revolutionary as it sparked a rare instance of political solidarity: republicans, democrats, wealthy Americans and poor Americans, farmers and tycoons, students and activists all joined together to fight for our one and only earth. It was powerful, intersectional, and it was effective. Congress listened to the people and responded: 1970 marked the creation of the U.S. EPA and the passage of the of Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Acts.

Protestors celebrate Earth Day on 5th Avenue 1970. Photo: Bowery Boys

But at what point exactly did we lose our momentum along the way? Does today’s earth day accurately exemplify the original movement or has it become something else entirely?

Today, earth day is still celebrated all over the U.S, but many of us seem to have lost the true spirit of the movement. Is it just a day for privileged Americans to prance around in “recycled” earth day attire, eat vegan food, and post a single screenshot of how precious our Earth is? And to just as quickly abandon their sustainable spirits and return to their consumerist lifestyles Monday morning?

In a time when the effects of climate change no longer “slowly” approaching, but herewe as a nation cannot afford to respect the earth only one day a year and we cannot afford to overlook those that are disproportionately impacted by environmental harm. Environmental justice needs to be at the center of modern environmentalism, not only because people of color have been fighting for our earth long before wealthy white people decided to take notice, but also because people of color are more likely to suffer the worst impact of climate change.

Many people point to the Warren County, NC protests in 1982 as the event that sparked the environmental justice movement we know today. When North Carolina announced their plans to move soil contaminated with PCB’s—a known toxin—to a landfill in a majority African

Photo by Jenny Labalme of protestors blocking dump trucks full of PCB contaminated dirt

American county, the residents were outraged. The community members led a wave of protests and demonstrations to combat this decision and although they ultimate lost the battle, their efforts garnered national attention. This controversy finally made apparent, to many wealthy white Americans, the reality that low-income people of color are affected disproportionately by environmental burdens in this country. 

So, on this Earth Week, I urge you to spend time learning from community activists, listening to their intersecting struggles, and standing with them in solidarity, as we fight for our world together and celebrate Earth Day as it was intended.

To start, come out to SERC’s environmental justice- focused Earth Week events!

Aviella Rose is a third year transfer at University of California, Berkeley, pursing a degree in Society and Environmental with an emphasize in Environmental Justice and Sustainability.

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