A Tale of Two Crises
What does it mean to celebrate Earth Day in the time of COVID-19?
1st Earth Day: April 22, 1970.
Julia Child’s popular program, “The French Chef,” plays on the television. Across America, home chefs are infected by her cheery enthusiasm, flipping buttery omelettes and stirring boeuf bourguignon.
“Let It Be” wafts through the radio, leaving behind a trail of nostalgia for the Beatles, who announced two weeks ago that they are breaking up.
In a few short days, President Nixon will announce the invasion of Cambodia, kicking off a new wave of anti-Vietnam war protests.
But today, the first-ever Earth Day, 20 million Americans march in the streets calling for collective action to address the looming climate crisis.
50th Earth Day: April 22, 2020.
Households across America are entering their second month of quarantine as a result of COVID-19. 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits and over 31,000 people have died in the US alone in the last four weeks.
There are signs of resilience and adaptation. Schools across the country have transformed screens into online classrooms. People are sewing masks. #QuarantineCooking has taken kitchens and Instagram feeds by storm.
This week, on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, 245 million Americans are staying home, bending two curves at once.
This week, people around the world were planning to participate in the largest single demonstration for climate action in history. Instead, we are confined to our homes.
One way of thinking about our current predicament is that Earth Day has been canceled by COVID-19. Le sigh. Just when climate was having its moment.
Yet there is another way of seeing it. Staying home is an active choice. A difficult and deeply inconvenient choice. If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is that we are powerful when we act together. By staying home together, across the globe, we are bending the curve.
Seeing our global community take swift action to address an invisible crisis inspires me. When in our history has the world been so united in fighting a shared enemy? Who would have thought we would shut down our economy and relinquish our freedoms for the common good?
One person staying home cannot stop a global pandemic. But when three in four of us stay home, as we do today in the US, we are reducing caseloads and preventing deaths. We are stopping the spread of the disease. Not with fancy vaccines or space-age treatments (though we need that, too, as soon as we can). With plain old staying home and face masks and soap and water.
One person eating a vegetarian meal cannot stop the worst effects of the climate crisis. But if we shift our diets together to demand less meat — and our lifestyles to require less fossil fuels — we will dramatically reduce emissions and prevent hundreds of millions of deaths. We need the moonshot technologies, but we cannot wait for them. We must start taking action today.
There were pre-COVID times, and there will be post-COVID times. We are fighting one of the deadliest diseases the world has ever seen, in months, not years. We are all a part of making that happen.
The arc of the climate curve is longer than that of the pandemic. In comparison, the actions required are moderate — shifting to cleaner fuels, opting for greener transportation, avoiding unnecessary air travel, switching to plant-based diets, investing in carbon removal, repurposing and reducing waste. If there is one thing we have proven from COVID-19, it is that our actions, when we take them together, are powerful.
There were pre-climate crisis times. And there remains the promise of post-climate crisis times in the future. In years, not centuries, we can all be a part of making that happen.
Let me paint a picture of how that might happen, borrowing a framework I heard from Dr. Jonathan Foley at Project Drawdown. Over the next decade, we will rally for climate action. We will adjust our consumption habits, cut out unnecessary emissions, find more efficient alternatives, reduce waste, and draw in the resources required to invest in a cleaner future.
In the next decade, we will swap out old infrastructure, building cleaner buildings, transportation, and manufacturing, institutionalizing a cleaner society.
In the third decade, we will realize the benefits of technological investments, discover moonshot solutions, and build a more sustainable world that we cannot even imagine today.
By April 22, 2050, the 80th Anniversary of Earth Day, we can flatten the other curve. We will see After Times on the horizon.
For the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, I offer three ideas for how to mark this week in history.
Take a moment to appreciate the incredible global transformation you are contributing to today, whether by staying home or supporting others by delivering essential services. We are bending two curves while in isolation, as cases of COVID-19 and global greenhouse gas emissions drop in parallel. The work we are doing together will go down in history books. Thank you, to everyone who is a part of this.
Reflect on the welcome parts of quarantine. Are there any quarantine behaviors that you might choose to carry into After Times in some form, for your health and the planet’s? Perhaps you could continue to find ways to avoid unnecessary work travel, spending more time at home with those you love. Enjoy homemade food, and a plant-forward diet. Make better use of virtual tools to stay connected.
Many climate actions can be taken from home. Take a walk. Call a friend and talk to them about climate. Download Joro, the app I’m working on to help anyone track and improve their carbon footprint. Use an Earth Day Zoom Background to let others know you’re celebrating. Donate to a climate non-profit. Cook a plant-based feast.
In these Crisis Times, it can be hard to see the existence of Before Times and After Times.
I take strength in the fact that we have faced hardship before, and we will face it again. I draw power from the fact that when we take action together, we change the course of history. Together, we are writing our story.