Lucy's warblers are busy searching for insects on the ocotillo as they build their nest in my roof. The sky is spectacularly clear with mountains majesty reflecting off of my laptop screen. A barrel of today’s crude oil is effectively cheaper than it was in 1870 when the US still imported 2.5 million gallons of whale oil. The celebration of Earth Day is happening online almost silently in light of social distancing.
Animals and plants have much to celebrate this gorgeous spring day in my city and beyond. The winter rains were plentiful enough. The insects, especially those crane flies, are prolific and delicious. Pollinators are busy visiting the blooming desert marigolds, cholla, and prickly pear while the entire neighborhood watches the fledgling great horned owls take tentative first steps out of their nest. Rabbits lounge in the street with a wary eye toward hawks and coyotes while disregarding my close proximity. Nature, the bit of Earth that every other planet envies, dances on as we hunker down inside.
The first Earth Day happened 50 years ago with millions of people embracing a spirit of protest, not celebration. Rivers were on fire, air was visible, unbreathable, and human health suffered especially the working class, essential people like my grandparents. This mass display of justified anger from US citizens created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the mission to protect human health from our own waste. It resulted in the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) creating better conditions for humans and other members of the biosphere. Through time, we have moved from protest to celebration as the effects of bipartisan sustainability-minded policy and regulation improved both lives and economic prosperity.
Now a climate crisis looms, demanding our collective action and unified collaboration. Here we have an opportunity and responsibility to lift our voices once again in protest for meaningful societal change. We must reflect on the past to guide our future. The bald eagle flies, but a mass extinction looms; environmentalism is embedded in the fabric of government, yet many voices are still not included; the ozone is healing, but the same fix will not address climate change; and renewable energy is serious business, yet we need more clean energy, faster. Let these past challenges and shortcomings guide our decisions and voices now. Let us remember that Earth Day was originally a Teach In, a collective educational experience about the importance of a sustainable natural world to spur activism.
Many scientists like myself consider our work as our call to action, and in many ways it is. And we can do more to communicate the impacts of this research in clear, engaging language to everyone, not just ourselves. Most importantly when you instruct, show, rather than tell, your students about the sustainable future that could be, that should be, for everyone. Students are hungry for meaningful environmental change and connection yet often do not know how to connect the classroom to the boardroom. Perhaps the local biosphere around them is a good place to start, something they can see, smell, hear, and taste to translate the importance of climate action to those in power and to sustain them through the process. It is our responsibility to cultivate, encourage, and celebrate their ambitions and enthusiasm for climate change action.
Now is the time to provide engagement opportunities for our students through activities such as writing emails, creating videos, organizing protests, and engaging with their own universities, communities, and governments to create climate action plans founded in social justice. Make space in student assessment beyond exams: it will provide the context of why they are learning what they are learning and how to apply it to a future Earth they want to be a part of. Earth Day is often celebrated with the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally.” We can take this opportunity provided by the local interactions with Lucy’s warblers, crane flies, and the blooming cholla to activate students’ latent desire for meaningful, globally relevant, climate action now.