Reflections on Earth Day in a Pandemic

posted by Alicia Vasto on Wednesday, April 22, 2020

50 Years of Earth DayToday marks 50 years since the first Earth Day celebration. On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets to demand action to protect a planet in crisis – dense smog covered many American cities, oil spills occurred without oversight, and some rivers were so polluted that they literally caught on fire.

Today the need for environmental protection is just as serious as it was 50 years ago. As an interconnected society, we rely on public systems, recognition of shared values, and collective action to protect one another and the resources we all utilize. We are facing new and different crises than the ones faced in 1970, but the absence of some of those issues doesn't mean they aren't a threat. Instead, it means that the laws and regulations enacted in response to them are effective.

The above is true about public health crises as well as environmental ones. This is obvious with the lessons that have already been learned from the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of those lessons is the need to act preemptively to prevent the worst possible outcomes of an impending disaster. Combatting the virus necessitates heeding warning signs of its approach, monitoring its progress, and developing a plan of action to prevent as much loss as possible.

Another lesson is that sound, evidence-based actions to prevent the worst consequences don't have flashy outcomes. Preventative measures like social-distancing make it appear as though we aren't doing anything. Gathering supplies and creating plans in advance do not make the news. But that is the entire point. Those actions reduce risk and mitigate the consequences unseen.

Since social-distancing has been enacted, we can see the worst-case scenario outcomes of the pandemic have been abated to date. Cities and states that enacted more stringent measures early on have seen the best results. If more actions had been taken in advance of the pandemic surging in our country, there is no doubt that more loss could have been prevented.

We see this situation in slow-motion with climate change – a threat that requires systemic and collective action, preventative measures that won’t show “noticeable” results, and the ability to plan in advance to protect against the worst outcomes for people that might not necessarily be ourselves. The situation requires the foresight to mitigate a catastrophe before the worst happens. That is a difficult task, but necessary.

Happy frog

Of course, this is the same story for clean air and clean water. Many of the environmental laws and regulations on the books are intended to be precautionary - to stop the disaster before it happens. There are others in place to react to emergencies and disasters. But if our society is functioning, it should rarely come to that.

Since the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and many environmental laws and policies were enacted that have prevented who knows how many tragedies. The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Pollution Prevention Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and more are designed to preempt the most dangerous situations. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed one year before the first Earth Day, another result of the environmental protection movement that defined that era. 

Iowa State CapitolWe need environmental protection just as much as ever. It is rarely an individualistic effort; environmental protection falls to public systems and collective efforts that are created out of a shared recognition of value and necessity. That is why IEC, together with the voices and support of our members, continues to call for strong public systems and regulations that protect public health and natural resources. We cannot allow the further weakening of laws and government agencies whose purpose are to prevent the worst outcomes.

Thank you for being a part of this important work. We are proud to do our part to make Iowa, and our nation and planet, a safe and healthy place to live, work, and play. Happy Earth Day!

Find ways to celebrate Earth Day at home, in your backyard, or online

About The Author

Alicia joined the Council in 2019. She grew up in Adel, Iowa. She previously worked as the director of the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, where she supported environmental educators and advanced environmental literacy. Alicia holds a Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke Uni ... read more