The Earth Without Us
On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we all stayed home
By Sigrid Wright
At one point in my nearly three-decade career as an environmental activist, I had a series of dreams about piloting a single-passenger spaceship to explore the lonely, isolated edges of the universe, searching for signs of life on the soil-less moon. I always awoke from these crushingly stark dreams with waves of gratitude for blue sky, human touch, radishes sprouting in my garden, the gift of fresh fish from my neighbor, the thunk of oranges falling from my tree.
Fifty years ago – about the time I began to form memories – the first crewed spacecraft left Earth’s orbit, reached the Moon, and safely returned to Earth. While Apollo 8’s mission taught us much about our collective abilities, the most poignant moment was when explorers turned around and were filled with gratitude by the image of our blue green home. The now-iconic Earthrise photo imprinted on the hearts of the world, and became the symbol of the newly emerging ecology movement. Suddenly we could visualize concepts like “global” and “interconnected.” (Read more about the power of the Earthrise image from founding CEC Board member Marc McGinnes.)
So here we are, April 2020, weeks and months into an unprecedented global exploration into isolation due to COVID-19. And once again, the most poignant takeaway of this new territory may very well be our keen rediscovery of how our lives depend on one another. It’s like looking at a photographic negative, in which our attention is drawn not to the crisis dominating headlines — virus, loss, distancing — but to the opportunities emerging from it. Interconnectedness. Gratitude. Humanity.
I can’t help but be profoundly struck how this moment is taking place on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. For Santa Barbarans, the history of Earth Day is encoded in our community story. Most long-timers know it: a catastrophic oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel in January 1969 – the worst spill in the nation at that time – spread along six miles of California coastline, shutting down fisheries, tourism and recreation. News reports were unclear at first, then improved through the tenacity of journalists. Local officials tried to figure out how to respond, and with no protocol for the new catastrophe, people attempted to clean up the mess on their own. The President came, standing in nice shoes on oily sand. Outraged youth, guided by a few elders, began to organize, forming one of the first community-based environmental centers in the U.S. (the Community Environmental Council) – their first act being to hold the first Earth Day gathering in Downtown Santa Barbara in spring 1970, one of about 2,000 environmental teach-ins attended by 20 million people around the country. (Read more about the origins of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and the Santa Barbara environmental movement from founding CEC Executive Director Paul Relis.)
Earth Day gatherings were modest at first, and spotty – on and off for a couple of decades. Then in 1990 a new wave of activists revitalized Earth Day globally (including the grown up youth of yesteryear), and again CEC led the way. For the next several decades, Santa Barbara was like an Olympic host city, carrying the torch for environmental long-distance athletes. Santa Barbara Earth Day grew to 30,000 annual attendees, one of the larger – and certainly one of the more consistently held – in the country.
Then in 2020, we stayed home.
By now you may have noticed that things have gotten quiet on planet earth. Like you-can-hear-the-birds-now quiet. Mountains that were shrouded in air pollution are becoming visible again. So are cities. No virtual reality headset needed; our metaphors are becoming literal. This is coming at a horrible human cost and is, of course, not sustainable. As energy analyst Nate Hagens put it, our economy is like a shark that needs to keep swimming to run oxygen through its gills. Our economic metabolism can slow, but stalling equals death.
Still, we are experiencing a transformative moment. Like the moon walk, like the 1969 oil spill, like Santa Barbara’s 2017 Thomas Fire and subsequent deadly mudslide, we will be forever changed. And one reason is because we can now envision what previously seemed unimaginable, both good and bad. We are dreaming our way forward.
This Earth Day, on April 22, we will gather separately-together in our online festivals. We’ll stand in solidarity with those who are keeping local food systems alive. We’ll listen to musicians and poets tell us the story of ourselves. We’ll bear witness to the fact that, as Orion editor H. Emerson Blake says, “the damage happening to the planet lies at the feet of a handful of people and organizations fighting for the right to destroy life in the name of profit.” We’ll continue the battle to keep attention on the climate crisis because (Blake again) “climate change doesn’t negotiate, and has no nostalgia.”
We’ll fight the assumption that limitless growth is possible. It never was.
Author Arundhati Roy has captured this moment in time better than I ever could. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality, she writes. In the midst of this terrible despair, the pandemic offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” Roy writes. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Perhaps staying home on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a metaphor for going inward and finding the strength to continue this fight. No matter where we make our home, this transformative moment is calling us. Now is our time. Let’s fight together for a cleaner, more sustainable world.
For more information on CEC’s Earth Day Festival, including the 2020 #TogetherWeEarthrise Earth Day Live online event, visit: www.SBEarthDay.org.
Sigrid Wright is CEO of the Community Environmental Council on the California Central Coast, and directed the Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival for over 20 years.