Precisely at noon, 219 people walked outside their houses in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. on April 22. The scene might have resembled a strange ritual, or an alien abduction with its level of coordination. Some stood on their steps alone, others sat for a brief picnic or yelled to their neighbor. Fifteen minutes later, each person walked back inside.
This is environmental activism in the time of coronavirus.
For the first time in its history, Earth Day was celebrated inside and individually. Rallies and celebrations for the 50th celebration of the environment were moved online in light of the continuing health threat posed by the COVID-19 virus and stay-at-home orders across the nation. Years of planning for April 22, 2020, were swept away as activists, artists, and general outdoors aficionados scrambled to move their events online. A rally in the nation’s capital and walkouts by D.C. college students seemed nearly impossible. Acknowledging both the ongoing crisis and its relation to the environment, organizers and activists persevered, revealing the advantages and limitations of the online medium, and the importance of community and physical presence to Earth Day.
Earth Day was first celebrated on April 22, 1970. Inspired by student-led anti-war protests, the focus of the first celebration was a country-wide teach-in on college campuses to raise awareness of the environmental problems the world was facing. Today, activists rally for greener energy policies, regulating the fossil fuel industry, and protecting animals and wildlife sites.
Earth Day events are now organized largely through the Earth Day Network, which provided a map of all the Earth Day celebrations and protests taking place. In early March, the events, which ranged from artists of the earth to protests and conservation efforts to teach-ins honoring the legacy of the first Earth Day, all provided a location for participants. By the time the events were held, the locations had all changed to Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Facebook Live.
Sam Liptak, a junior at American University, did not consider herself an activist before joining the Earth Day Network at their D.C. headquarters. Now an assistant for the Artists for the Earth program, she and her boss have been working tirelessly with the rest of the organization to engage the public for the 50th anniversary.
“I would have been outside on the Mall, supporting Earth Day Network,” she said of her pre-COVID plans. A week-long event was slated to be led by the organization, with speakers and performers on the National Mall for all of April 22. The hope was to replicate the turnout of the original nation-wide event , when more than 20 million Americans went outside to take action for the earth via protests, rallies, and celebrations.
“We wanted this to be just as big,” Liptak said a few days before the event. “And it will be just as big. It’ll just be on a different platform.”
“We had a unique opportunity to rethink what we could do for our community,” Savannah Donovan said. Donovan, the organizer of the event in Champaign entitled C-U on Earth Day, has led five Earth Day celebrations. As part of her job at the Champaign Parks Dept., this usually has meant organizing an exposition, taking place mostly indoors, with about 100 attendees. When they realized that a gathering wouldn’t be feasible this April, she and her co-workers moved the celebration outside, urging residents to all step outside at a coordinated time to appreciate the earth.
A map created for participants to pin where they would be standing on April 22 was viewed over 2000 times and had 219 pins, more than double the exposition attendance in past years. A word cloud for the event counted the times different adjectives were used by participants to describe taking action for the environment. The largest, and thus most-used, word was clear—essential
As it became apparent in-person events would not be feasible, organizers were faced with the choice of postponing their events or finding a way to move them online. Some events, such as teach-ins and art shares could be hosted over meeting or streaming platforms without altering the content of the event. However, for more action-based celebrations such as protests, clean-up efforts, and plantings, the digital medium seemed contrary to the very heart of the event.
“I think the biggest disappointment to everyone was not being able to protest in person,” Alex Wolfe said. Wolfe is a field organizer for the New York City branch of the Humane League, a non-profit devoted to ending abuse of animals raised for food. Organizers across the country were planning to bring Humane League members to the biggest protests in their area to highlight animal agriculture as one of the leading causes of climate change.
Instead, the organization, like many others, hosted its first ever virtual protest. Members were invited to sign-making parties over Zoom and then asked to share photos of their signs in social media. According to Wolfe, engagement with this alternative protest was surprisingly high. “I think people were just looking for an outlet,” she said.
Wolfe led one of the virtual sign-making events on April 16. Though the in-person event would have been limited to those in the NYC area in person, the 13 participants of the call included residents of at least two other states. For an hour, virtual strangers sat on the call, making signs out of recycled materials and small talk. Though everyone on the call planned to post their posters online, the space was still permeated by a distinct sense of frustration—nice posters like these should be used to protest on the streets.
Wolfe understood this. While individual protests can be rewarding, she said, the Humane League is used to large campaigns that can’t be replicated on one person’s social media. “Convincing one person to eat more veggies feels really good,” Wolfe said. “But convincing a company like McDonalds to end battery cages for their egg-raising hens leads to institutional change that affects chickens nationwide.”
Like Wolfe, Joe Markus was hoping to protest for institutional change. Markus, a student at George Washington University, had been organizing members of the Sunrise Movement, a national organization of youth supporting climate justice, at his school to take action on Earth Day. With students sent home and scattered across the country, Markus’s dream of recreating the 1970 protests with students was lost. “We can’t really fulfill the standards that we hold ourselves to when it comes to a traditional action,” he said.
George Washington’s chapter of Sunrise planned to utilize a model from the national organization to advocate for the university to divest from fossil fuels and to connect students with activists on Capitol Hill. With a university meeting to discuss divestment still slated for May, students coordinated email campaigns asking university administrators to listen to past student votes supporting a greener investment policy.
Markus is the first to acknowledge that while sending emails and phone banking as climate activism is a partial substitute, digital advocacy cannot replace in-person protests. “It’s tough to call them actions,” he said of Sunrise’s adapted Earth Day activities. “Actions are like a very particular thing.”
University chapters of Sunrise hosted digital protests in place of planned walk-outs, encouraging students to change their Zoom background to a Sunrise flag or protest sign and to then either leave class or leave their background up without participating. Without a classroom to physically walk out of, protesters still made their absences felt.
To Markus, this continued action proved how committed young people are to climate activism, even when other aspects of their lives have been disrupted. “Having lost the ability to congregate and take collective action in the street is an undeniable setback, but people are so committed to the cause they will find a way to rise to the moment,” he said, an undeniable tinge of pride in his voice.
Earth Day may be a celebration for some, but for Markus and Wolfe it is a work day, a unique opportunity to bring their movements to the general public. Climate activism has reached a new importance for Markus in light of what he calls the converging crises of COVID-19 and climate change. A self-proclaimed huge fan of the Green New Deal, a package of legislation proposed by progressive members of Congress to tackle economic inequality and climate change simultaneously, he hopes the public tragedy of coronavirus leads to more systemic changes.
“I hope that people start to see the failure of our global capitalist economy and government’s prioritization of corporate bailouts over people,” Markus said. “But I don’t have faith.”
While many view Earth Day as a day simply to appreciate the outdoors and be present in the environment, even community and arts events took on a distinctly political character for the 50th anniversary. At an Earth Day Festival hosted on Facebook Live by Carpe Diem Arts, a community arts group, and Washington Revels, a cultural arts organization, both based in Silver Spring, Md., the artistic quickly gave way to the political.
Five minutes into the livestream, the attendees were asked by Betsy Taylor, one of the organizers, to close their eyes and imagine themselves under a tree. When they reopened them, they were greeted with an image of Dennis Hayes, one of the leaders of the first Earth Day. After the requisite technical issues, Hayes spoke via pre-recorded video message about the activism he hoped to see from the arts community gathered online.
“We want to lift up climate to become a voting issue,” Hayes said. “I’m asking you to make election day Earth Day in 2020. This is the year to vote for the earth.”
The messages that followed expressed both love of the Earth and frustration with inaction through song. About a half hour in, James Hill and Anne Janelle, a singer-songwriter-ukulele-cello duo took the screen. They began with the classic version of Civil War-era spiritual turned anti-war protest anthem “Down by the Riverside,” whose chorus boasts the repeated message “ain’t gonna study war no more.” They then asked the audience what they would like to give up, and the responses immediately poured in. Some predictable (coronavirus), and some poignantly hilarious (virtual school for second graders), Hill and Janelle settled on a sentiment every attendee was surely feeling. “Gonna lay down my isolation, down by the riverside,” they sang.
Music has been a crucial connector for members of the Washington Revels community, which has been hosting daily antidotes of song every morning since going into isolation. Busy Graham, executive director of Carpe Diem Arts, sees these meetings and the Earth Day Festival to have a dual purpose. “It’s a combination of celebration and a sobering reckoning,” she said. “We do have to mobilize to make sure we have a planet and to ensure the survival of our species.”
When she realized pushing the celebration back could mean not hosting it until after the November 2020 election, she decided creating momentum now, online was more important than celebrating later, in person. “I do think it’s essential for survival,” Graham added.
The event was free, but Graham asked attendees to donate if they were able. She hoped to be able to pay the performers, many of whom have lost revenue from cancelled gigs. Extra donations will be given to fund environmental education and arts programs.
Nearly 800 people joined another arts-based event entitled “Eyewitness: Earth Day Storytelling Slam” hosted on Crowdcast by Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. The organization, who hopes to normalize discussing climate change through personal storytelling, brought together authors of chapters in their new book “Eyewitness: Minnesota Voices on Climate Change” to read their stories aloud.
The event would have been held on the steps of the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul, but moving it online allowed more people to hear the testimonies of the authors, which was the goal of Kira Liu, community engagement coordinator. “Storytelling is so important to the way that we talk about climate change because information alone is not enough to shift behavior,” Liu said. “Storytelling humanizes climate change.”
The near halt on human activity that has occurred over the past six weeks is also changing the stories we are telling about the climate. With reports of lower pollution and nature flourishing circulating, human impact on the environment has become painfully obvious in the accidental case study quarantine provided.
Though Graham wishes the halt had come voluntarily, and not at the cost of loss of life, she feels we have learned that giving the earth a chance “to breathe” can reverse some of the adverse effects of human pollution of the environment. “If we really do cut down on carbon emissions and use of electricity and all the ways we abuse our planet, it will respond and we will hold onto it longer,” she said.
While Earth Day is important symbolically to Liptak, she doesn’t want it to be a substitute for year-round climate activism. “It’s not just once a year when you can think sustainably, think green,” she said. “Earth Day is every day.”
In addition to their events, Liptak, Markus, and Donovan all found their own personal Earth Day celebrations. Though she’s still in the hub of the nation’s capital, Liptak has been trying to go outside for thirty minutes a day, finding the least frequented places to walk. Markus flew his Sunrise banner from his family’s flagpole. Donovan dragged her toddlers “kicking and screaming” outside for a picnic. Finding these little pockets of time has been important, Liptak said, for those who are used to being outside and suddenly found themselves confined to their home.
While she was pleased with Earth Day this year, and the activism and celebrations that continued to take place digitally, Liptak is already looking ahead. “On the 51st anniversary of Earth Day hopefully we’ll all be outside again celebrating,” she said.
Illustration credits: Olivia Stevens