Local Earth Day Activists Adjust to “Double Crisis”
By Anna Gyorgy
Published in the Montague Reporter, April 23, 2020
FRANKLIN COUNTY – Wednesday was Earth Day, and the 50th anniversary of the first mega-environmental demonstrations in the US. People couldn’t gather as in years past, but there was still activity, some outside as well as online.
That first Earth Day was big. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans rallied to protest the state of the nation’s environment. The power of that public expression led to nationwide legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency was created, and major bills were passed. Among them were a strengthened Clean Air Act; endangered species protection; the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 for workplace safety; and the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972 to improve the polluted state of national waterways.
Much remained to be done. And often it wasn’t. Over the years, an international Earth Day network developed. Although corporate sponsors took advantage of good publicity through their support, awareness of environmental problems and urgent needs continued to grow – as did the climate crisis.
Denis Hayes, an original organizer and since head of the Earth Day Network, recently told the host of NPR’s “Living on Earth” that:
“The core purpose of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day was to finally take the climate emergency seriously, not as a subject for additional reports, not as a subject for additional international conferences, not to spin our wheels with voluntary activities, but to take something akin to the Green New Deal proposed domestically and take that out internationally with people around the world going out into the streets in mass crowd demonstrations….
“We hoped to have 750,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to stand there and just demand that we finally get serious about this issue and move boldly. Not with a $15 a ton tax on carbon, but [with] initiatives that will really change the game dramatically.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed those long-laid plans. But this week is seeing intense activity online, among them by Hayes’ Earth Day Network, the US Climate Strike Coalition’s Tuesday through Friday online streaming at earthdaylive2020.org, and here in Western Mass, programs by the youth-led Sunrise Movement.
Not all messages have come over the screen. In an artistic info-action, local artists and activists hung signs in Turners Falls and elsewhere with their Earth Day 2020 wishes.
The eyes of bikers and strollers along the Canalside Rail Trail in Turners could be caught by original posters, each with the heading: “Another World is Possible.”
Ferd Wulkan, Montague resident and co-chair of Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, explained: “Our theme for these posters, another world is possible, is so timely as we think about the twin crises we face: the coronavirus and the climate.
“In dealing with the virus, we have seen endless examples of mutual support and solidarity; we recognize the importance of work done by low-paid workers; we see that the federal government has virtually unlimited amount of money to address a crisis; we see the power and necessity of science; and we see that huge changes to our economy can happen very quickly. These are all lessons to apply to the climate crisis and to make another world not just possible and urgently needed, but a reality.”
Other area groups also expressed their climate activism in the great outdoors. Extinction Rebellion Western Massachusetts organized a “conversation in art to honor this moment in a spirit of healing,” featuring painted rocks and other artistic expressions.
“We may be stuck at home, but we are still taking back Earth Day,” was the word from the youthful climate action network Sunrise Movement, which since its founding in April 2017 has been a main player in making the Green New Deal a piece of national legislation and goal for many.
Instead of organizing public activities and a large demonstration, as they had originally planned, Sunrise Western MA is hosting three online webinars during the week of Earth Day, while working with other “Sunrise hubs” for a “virtual rally.”
The webinars cover themes crucial to the climate issue. Tuesday’s argued why the pandemic shows the urgent need for a Green New Deal. Wednesday’s explored ways to expand the Green New Deal past the climate crisis, with contributions from Springfield-area organizations Neighbor to Neighbor and Gardening the Community, Deeper Than Water, and the Western Mass Area Labor Federation.
Thursday’s session, which takes place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. (see tinyurl.com/ybmtpf4j), focuses on the “People’s Bailout,” with presentations from Sunriser Haven Vincent-Warner and Divest Smith College. The group makes connections between the coronavirus bailout and the Green New Deal, and discusses how to take action on both.
Here is why Vincent-Warner, a 15-year-old from South Deerfield, is so active, currently as a Sunrise Movement coordinator and field representative for Our Climate:
“In elementary school I steered away from climate activism. As a person of color growing up in low-income housing, I thought climate change was a “white people issue” and I had other things to worry about. I had been told this repeatedly, and it was enforced in many ways within my life, so I really believed it.
“Then after taking the time to do my own research I learned that what I had been told and shown could not be further from the truth. Climate change is an intersectional issue in every way. I learned that if we don’t take preventative measures against climate change now, my generation will not have a future. Further, I saw how the climate crisis first affects frontline and low-income communities, mainly populated by minorities.
“I realized I have to fight for all the kids who were told the same things I was. I have to join the fight for the future of my generation. I now work more than 30 hours a week as a climate activist, it is my passion, and I will continue fighting for climate action for the rest of my life.
“Organizing during the time of the COVID-19 crisis has been a complicated experience. We, as youth activists, have been resilient in adapting to organizing over an online platform. We have worked to make the connections between the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis while educating the public and continuing to meet with legislators.
“We have two urgent crises at hand, and we as activists must do everything in our power to keep both relevant, educate the public on both issues, and move our legislators towards equitable policy that addresses both issues.”
Although the forms of protest have changed this Earth Day anniversary, this year’s “twin crises” are making people think about the kind of future and world we want – and want to make possible for all.
Fifty years from now, what will the student climate strikers of today remember? What will their lives be like, in 2070?
For more on Extinction Rebellion Western Mass’s public art actions, see www.xrwesternmass.org/earth-day. The Sunrise Movement webinars can be found at tinyurl.com/ybmtpf4j, and video will be available after the events. Sunrise Western MA can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Instagram @sunrisewmass.