If you find yourself at a loss for how to celebrate Earth Day this year, you’re not alone. This year is the 50th anniversary of the holiday, and over 90 percent of Americans are currently under stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t have to mean Earth won’t have its day.
So far, at least some good news for the planet has come out of the quarantine. Governments, cities and organizations across the globe are reporting drastic reductions in air pollution. In March and the first week of April, NO2 pollution fell around 19% in the Seattle area compared to the same period last year. With the streets empty of traffic, most flights grounded and factories temporarily halting production, the air for Earth Day may be some of the clearest we’ve breathed in years.
A Local Look
Locally, The Evergreen State College is watching the environmental effects of the quarantine closely. As a hub of sustainability-minded researchers and workers, Evergreen faculty and students continue to spur on meaningful environmental discussions. Though we may be socially distant for this year’s Earth Day, Evergreen’s director of sustainability Scott Morgan says we would be wise to continue to pay attention to what’s happening around us.
“There are going to be a lot of lessons from this experience,” says Morgan. “On the plus side, teleworking can work for many occupations (not all). It’s a challenge, but we’re doing it. And telework is a key strategy to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, gas emissions and toxic water pollution.”
Morgan also noted we should still be concerned with the dominant practice of single-use items such as food containers, disposable shopping bags, gloves and masks. “I would recommend that people focus on the behaviors they are developing right now, both intentionally and unintentionally,” he added. “This is a challenging moment. But if we address these changes mindfully, we can come out of it with less destructive behaviors.”
For more than 30 years, Evergreen’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) students have hosted the Rachel Carson Forum during the week of Earth Day. At this year’s forum, Evergreen faculty Jeff Antonelis-Lapp was invited to speak about his new book Tahoma and Its People: A Natural History of Mount Rainier National Park. Instead, like many communities this year, MES students now plan to get together to celebrate the planet virtually. MES assistant director Averi Azar said, “I’m just trying to make it as much of a reflection/celebration in my household as possible.”
You may (or may not) be surprised to hear that Earth Day itself has some early Evergreen connections. Former Evergreen faculty José Argüelles, who taught at the college from 1971-74, is credited as an originator of the concept of Earth Day. If you’ve ever been to the main stairwell of Evergreen’s library building, the “Dragon Wall” mural that twists its way up four stories with colorful, cross-cultural poetry and imagery was the result of the first program Arguelles taught at Evergreen.
That first Earth Day that began just one year after Evergreen was formally established had a tremendous impact on environmental legislation in the U.S. It helped to establish the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. It also inspired the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Earth Day and Evergreen came from the same cultural push in the late 60s and early 70s to prioritize the health of our environment, and both continue to evolve new ways of thinking and caring about the planet we share.
And it seems everywhere you look these days, you can find Evergreen graduates, faculty and current students still doing groundbreaking environmental work. Even Les Purce, former president of the college, has been recognized recently for his role in helping orcas recover in the South Puget Sound.
Typically, Earth Day is all about getting together with others outside in some form or another. In lieu of the in-person gatherings often planned for Earth Day, EarthDay.org has created a map of digital events happening around the world. They’ve also compiled a list of what they call “isolutions” to help us get through quarantine in more healthy ways.
So even if you’re stuck inside for Earth Day this year, know that work for the Earth continues all around us, both locally and globally. And if you’re looking to start a career to help the environment in any form, consider applying to Evergreen.