This year’s Earth Day falls during a time of great global crises and shared isolation and provides an exceptional chance for reflection on the state of the environment, to accept our responsibility for that state, to face the very real possibility of change, and to seize the chance to save what we have so easily forgotten and callously destroyed.
Since the novel coronavirus began sweeping across nations and citizens all over the world were ordered to stay home we’ve started to see what a world that is being given a chance to heal, a world with fewer humans, looks like.
We’re not driving or flying, oil prices are plummeting, the air is clearing and so are our waterways, and wildlife is returning to areas it dared not venture when humans walked about. The human world, it seems, has to get smaller in order for us and the planet to survive.
My hope is that this time away from the all-encompassing need to work and to consume has not just reminded us of what is important: love, connection, health, safety, life, but also reminded us of what we need most in times of great stress and uncertainty, nature.
Nature soothes us: Walking around the neighborhood, through parks and places far away from people, we find the warmth of the sun and find hope and wonder in the budding trees and flowers blooming. When we do not have each other, it is the trees and wildlife around us that are our closest kin.
Earth Day is meant to be a celebration of this connection to the planet and an annual chance to renew our resolve to a more sustainable way of life, but each year the climate crises continue and model predictions more dire. Every year the water and air grow more polluted, ancient forests are further flattened, and whole species are wiped from existence due solely to human action and inaction.
Humans, as a species, do what we can to the Earth and not what we should for the sake of power and ego. We take ownership, we confine, we reshape and restructure; we alter and we kill because we can. We have placed ourselves at the apex of evolution and determined given ourselves domain over all and granted ourselves the inalienable right to do with this planet what we please and to shape the environment in our own mental image of what human life should be, can be. We’ve been able to do this for so long only because our right goes uncontested.
Now it seems all other forms of life depend now not just on the planet but on the benevolence and mercy of humans. Unfortunately for them, we do not connect ourselves to their plight and survival at all.
We do not understand that what we eat, kill, produce, buy, and throw away affects the water air and health of people and animals who live nations away and people and animals who live generations away too. We do not believe that our actions have an impact on the global ecosystem, nor do we believe our futures are intertwined with the futures of other plant and animal life.
We do not connect ourselves to nature because we have done everything we could to remove ourselves from nature. We’ve pushed nature out and away from us, considering any life or structure to be too dangerous to live near, or too useful not to claim as our own.
We have laid the land flat for our buildings and homes, businesses and landfills. We’ve dammed the rivers and mined the mountains hollow. We’ve pumped oil from the depths and refined and burned it to CO2, released it into the atmosphere, and strangled the natural flow of temperature, air, and current. We’ve punched a hole in the ozone layer and bleached the coral reefs. We’ve taken our power and done irreparable damage with it for the sake of more power and pleasure alone.
We have told ourselves a great lie, and it’s time we faced the truth. The truth is, you are connected by this planet to all life that existed and will exist. Your existence depends on the survival of all the life around you and there is no advancement in technology or amount of pure human will that will change that. If the Earth dies, we die. If the Earth dies, it will be because of our stubborn ignorance and cruel consumption. The Earth and every life form on it depend on all of us and you must internalize this for all our sakes.
The truth is, there is no “Planet B” and there are limits to our power. There is no hero on the way to save us and no miracle will manifest to undo what we have done. We will reap what we have sown in our own lifetimes and in the lifetimes to come. All we can do now is try to mitigate the harm, and even that will take a monumental shift of culture and consciousness. We have to be the heroes, each of us. We have to save one another and ourselves in small ways every day.
This year I am asking all of you to take ownership not of the land but of your small place in the ecosystems around you. Find power in the responsibility you have for that environment rather than in all the ways it can be utilized and monetized. Find your place in nature and resolve to save something in it. Start small. It’s better than no start at all.
Plant a tree. Build a bat house or a bee hotel. Change those old lightbulbs. Turn off the faucet. Buy more reusable products. Carpool with coworkers and friends. Volunteer to clean up a highway or a trail. Make some art. Write an essay. Sign a petition. Advocate, educate, protest, and most of all talk.
Talk to your friends and family about the Earth, about the beauty and wonder of nature, about where life came from and where life is headed. Talk about the damage we have done and do every day. Talk about what can be done and what will happen if nothing can is done. The best way to keep nature fully in our minds is to remind one another. The best way to change someone’s heart is to engage with them.
Talk about how we can take the lessons we have learned these past few months and apply them in smaller ways in the future. Perhaps four-day workweeks and more opportunities to work from home? More days a week that businesses are closed. More days a year we are encouraged to step out of our human worlds and instead to walk through the nature around us and take notice.
It will take courage and imagination but watching us all come together to make drastic changes and to trust in what we are told must be done to stay safe has proven we have what it takes to save this planet. It will take remembering what we have forgotten and doing the exhausting and hopeless work of loving something more than we love power and pleasure. We have to do it again and again, every day, as we notice ourselves falling back into old habits and easier ways of thinking.
We all have to do this because we are all guilty and if I’m being honest, I’m as guilty as anyone else. I eat too much meat. I waste water. I pollute. I forget where I come from. I get lost in the power and possibility of human intellect and forget the importance of the human heart. I forget I am only one link in a chain of generations. I forget that I made of all that has come before me and throughout my life; I am participating in the making of all that will come after.
And shame on me for forgetting. Shame on me for my consumption and for my waste. Shame on me for the harm I cause and the responsibilities I fail to take. Shame on me for my place in this grand pursuit of power and pleasure. Shame on me for the actions I chose to take and the actions I chose not too. Shame on us all.
But it isn’t all my fault alone, nor is it yours alone either. Just as we cannot always see the ecosystems we are connected to and our place in them we often fail to see the cultural, political, and economic systems we are a part of and how we are influenced and even controlled by them. The key is to learn to be mindful of both. Look at the human world and look at the world of nature, realize in many ways they are connected, and in many more ways they are one and the same. It’s a simple ask, but it’s the hardest thing a human can do.
It’s emotionally exhausting enough to empathize with people closest to us but to open our hearts and concern to other species? To future generations? To whole ecosystems? That is beyond the capability of one heart for a whole lifetime, and that’s okay.
Humans have evolved to have a certain amount of built-in selfishness. There is no shame in that. We needed it to get this far, but now it has become our weakness and a formidable one to overcome. Instead of expectation and every one of the nearly 8 billion human hearts on this earth to suddenly expand to encompass the planet, why don’t we ask that each of us just care a little more about the bit of nature that can be found around us?
We won’t always get it right but if each of us can start getting it more right right now then imagine how much better we all will be in a year, in ten years, in ten generations?
Imagine air and water that belongs to everyone. Imagine every animal and natural wonder with inalienable rights of their own. Imagine a world we do not own but one we belong to. Imagine a world not built for us, or by us, a world to share and cherish as a bright and blue gift. Imagine how far we might go if all the human love, imagination, and courage in the world were used for good.
Imagine that every day is Earth Day and eat, consume, build, buy, travel, teach, vote, connect, create, love, live and let live accordingly.
“…we need to transform the way in which we value water. We have to start to think about how do we connect to water. Usually, someone might ask you, “What is water?” and you would respond with “Rain, ocean, lake, river, H20, liquid.” You might even understand the sacred essentiality of water and say that water is life. But what if I asked you, instead, ‘Who is water?’ In the same way that I might ask you, ‘Who is your grandmother?’ ‘Who is your sister?’ That type of orientation fundamentally transforms the way in which we think about water, transforms the way in which we make decisions about how we might protect water, protect it in the way that you would protect your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your aunties. That is the type of transformation that we need if we are going to address the many water crises we see in our world today, these harrowing water crises that have streamed across our digital devices in countdowns to Day Zero, the point at which municipal water supplies are shut off. ”
“So…what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for the water? Well, you can call your local politician. You can go to a town meeting. You can advocate for granting legal personhood to water. You can be like the residents of the city of Toledo and build from the grass roots, and craft your own legislation if the politicians won’t write it, recognizing legal personality of water. You can learn about the Indigenous lands and waters that you now occupy and the Indigenous legal systems that still govern them. And most of all, you can connect to water. You can restore that connection. Go to the water closest to your home, and find out why it is threatened. But most of all, if you do anything, I ask that you make a promise to yourself, that each day, you will ask, “What have I done for the water today?” If we are able to fulfill that promise, I believe we can create a bold and brilliant world where future generations are able to form the same relationship to water that we have been privileged to have, where all communities of human and nonhuman relations have water to live, because water is life.”