In the “before times” (pre-pandemic lockdown), Northeast Ohio had big plans to celebrate the 50th Earth Day. There were to be tree plantings, family hikes, lectures, trash cleanups, and lovingly made information kiosks telling the history of Earth Day at local schools. All across the state people were at work preparing for the half-century milestone. Then came COVID-19, and abruptly all of those plans got canceled. Still, Earth Day 2020 offers lessons to ponder despite the global pandemic we are collectively fighting.
Lesson One: Unity of Nature
Harvey Webster, Museum Ambassador and Chief Wildlife Officer for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH), points out that COVID-19 is nothing if not a reminder of the oneness, the unity of nature. “This pandemic shows in this global economy, you can’t be personally, individually healthy without global health—a safe biosphere,” says Webster.
After all, human cells share the same cellular mechanics with all the other earthlings, including bats. COVID-19, which originated in bats, freshly illustrates that we humans are vulnerable to new viruses moving from the cells of others into our own. With that vulnerability comes the responsibility to actively maintain a safe biosphere.
Social distancing is the crucial action we need to take now. And as we practice social distancing, we should marvel at nature’s power to grind modern life to a halt the world over—all due to a tiny virus at work in our cells.
Lesson Two: Action Equals Change Over Time
The very first Earth Day was a “teach-in,” an educational event that took place disparately across the country, engaging some 20 million Americans. The first Earth Day was observed on April 22, 1970, and is widely credited with setting off the global environmental movement. Organizing that first Earth Day happened in part as a response to the final Cuyahoga River fire that burned the year before and galvanized the conscience of the nation. After the fire, Mayor Carl Stokes took bold action at the local and national levels, actions that resulted in environmental protections for the damaged river as well as ultimately producing the strongest federal environmental legislation passed in the United States to this day.
The legacy of the Stokes brothers is an underacknowledged Ohio success, and the recovered Cuyahoga is a reminder that action equals change over time.
The return of the Bald Eagle is another striking example of how actions over the last half century have made change. The raptor was included in the very first endangered species list, a few years before the first Earth Day. These majestic animals were in dire decline in Ohio due to toxins in the environment—DDT in particular—which made reproduction impossible for them and many other animals. Webster recalls finding it grimly symbolic that America might push to extinction its own national icon. But lawmakers and people took action, writing and implementing wetland recovery acts and banning DDT and other toxins. In response to these actions, the eagles have rebounded.
In 1979, there were only 4 known, active nests in the state. However, the number of nests rose to 20 by 1990 and to 200 by the year 2000. Currently, Ohio is trying to do a hard census to count the rebound, but even without the numbers, eagle watchers know that the Bald Eagle is doing well in Ohio today.
Photographer Joe Bojc has been capturing images of local eagles for years. He explains what’s been going on at his favorite nest in Eastlake’s Bruce Yee Park: “The eagles, named Justice (the male) and Kindness (female), built this nest about 4 years ago high up in a tree. They have had 1 successful breeding year that produced 2 eaglets.”
There will be no eaglets this year, but encouragingly, that’s due to healthy competition. Bojc explains, “A few weeks ago, when she laid eggs, another young male basically started hanging around the nest looking to drive out the male (Justice) and become her new mate. This led them to abandon the eggs in order to fight off the young intruder.” A lot of local eagle watchers were very disturbed that this happened. “But here’s the thing,” says Bojc, “this is what eagles do. The fact that there are others looking for her attention means that the eagle population is strong.”
Lesson Three: It Takes a Planet
The final lesson of Earth Day 2020 is that environmental awareness is a group project involving the whole planet all the time. “We can also thank NASA,” says Webster, citing the Apollo 8 mission in particular, which sent back the first images of Earth from space in late December of 1968 and forever changed how we see ourselves and our planet. It’s not just environmentalists on Earth Day; it’s our collective consciousness and it flows out of every moment of collective insight.
COVID-19 has completely reordered our world in a matter of months. There could be no better example of how swift global change is possible, but such moments of danger are also moments of opportunity. We humans now have the chance to think hard about the ways that we want our world to go back to the old normal after this pandemic and the ways that we want it to change. Radical drops in pollution rates during the lockdowns in China, India, Europe, and here in America starkly show how changes in action equal rapid healing in the environment. This pandemic, like every threat we face, is linked in ways large and small to climate change. What we do in response, and how we choose to live afterwards, will determine our future on Earth.
Earth Day 2020
Although it might sound trite, CMNH tries to observe Earth Day every day. “The essence of Earth Day,” Webster says, is that “if we put our minds to it, are informed by good science, and we act individually and collectively, there is a recipe for hope.”
The theme of this year’s Earth Day is Climate Action. We can each use this occasion to commit to some kind of action that will translate into change over time. Perhaps that’s voting for a green agenda this year if you’re of age (or joining the Sunrise movement if you’re not). It may mean adopting one of Ohio’s many eagle nests for ongoing observation or perhaps planting a tree or a garden and developing a stronger connection to our planet.
However we choose to observe the day, let’s do it in a socially distant way and balance that distance by keeping in mind that we’re all part of one biosphere. What we do today and every day determines the future for the collective. As Harvey Webster says, “Natural History is the story of nature, from big bang to your backyard, and you. The importance of natural history is a universal story—it’s the story of us.”