Fifty years ago today, on April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day at rallies organized in most major U.S. cities. Earth Day demonstrations helped build widespread, bipartisan support for environmental regulation to combat the alarming effects of pollution from urban, agricultural, and industrial development. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire (for what was probably the twelfth time in modern history) and a drilling explosion released three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean near Santa Barbara, CA. These high profile events made it clear to most Americans that radical change was necessary.
By the end of the 1970s, U.S. environmental policy had been transformed through the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the adoption of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Today, Earth Day remains an important day to reflect on how far we have come, identify the problems that we must still solve, and decide what actions to take to protect and restore the ecosystems that sustain all of us.
Although COVID-19 may keep us from gathering together at large public rallies this year, here are three things you can do to celebrate Earth Day today and every day:
1. GIVE – The non-profit organizations and public agencies that do the important work of advocating for strong environmental policies and caring for our natural spaces are struggling as a result of the economic uncertainty and the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Your donation of money or (when it is safe to volunteer) your time, means that they can continue their work. If you are in the Springfield area, consider a donation to one of these local organizations or initiatives, which regularly host CPAA student interns, work closely with UIS faculty, and employee UIS alumnae:
- Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA) – a member-based organization that “cultivates a local food and farm system that is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable.” They are a major voice for sustainable agricultural and food policies in Illinois.
- Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) – a “respected and trusted voice for creating sound policy and ensuring environmental protections” in Illinois. The IEC represents more than ninety Illinois environmental organizations and helps set the state legislative agenda for environmental policy.
- Friends of the Sangamon Valley – a non-profit organization that owns several local preserves and wildlife sanctuaries and helps with ecological management at a number of local parks.
- Lincoln Memorial Garden (LMG) – a non-profit organization that operates a beloved local natural area dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.
- UIS Green Projects Fund – a fundraising account that allows anyone who cares about sustainability at UIS to donate to our campus-wide green projects initiative. Students at UIS pay a $5/semester green fee, and a student-led committee decides how to use these funds to make our campus greener. Public contributions to this fund allow us to implement larger-scale projects than we can pay for with student fees alone.
2. LEARN – The first Earth Day was initially meant to be a “teach-in,” a time for people to learn about major environmental issues from experts and advocates in the field. In order to solve environmental problems, we have to understand what causes them. Earth Day is a great time to dig into the most important issues of our day. Here are a few topics that are especially important to investigate in 2020:
3. ACT – Earth Day is a time to reflect on our own lives and think about what we can do differently. We often think first about our individual behaviors – Can I buy better, greener products? Can I recycle more? However, Earth Day is also a time to think about how we can act collectively to advocate for the kinds of structural and institutional change that will have a much larger and longer-lasting impact.
In a recent essay published in the Seattle Times, Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day, writes, “COVID-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year. So let’s make Election Day Earth Day.” The decisions that we make on November 3rd have never been more important. Investigate the voting record and environmental platform put forward by the local, state, and federal candidates on your ballot, and hold them accountable to their election year promises.
However, our work will not be done on Election Day. A number of important pieces of environmental legislation being considered in Illinois deserve your attention and your voice. If you like a policy, call, email, or write your public officials to advocate for it. If you think it is inadequate or problematic, advocate for changes and improvements. Join organizations like the ISA and the IEC to find out more about state-level environmental policies in development and how to lobby for the issues that you care about. Here are a few state-level bills that you may want to act on in honor of Earth Day 2020:
- Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), Senate Bill 2132/House Bill 3624 – This bill would help create incentives and programs to help trigger a transition to renewable energy sources in Illinois. The bill enjoys widespread support from Illinois environmental groups, like the Citizen's Utility Board, which prepared this primer on the bill’s major features. More information on the bill can also be found on the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition website.
- Limiting Plastic Waste – Illinois lawmakers are currently debating several state-level bills that would tax single-use plastic bags, ban polystyrene containers (Styrofoam), and ban plastic utensils. More information about these proposals can be found in this recent news article. If passed, any or all of these initiatives could make Illinois a leader in eliminating single-use plastics, but there are important decisions to make about what types of products to target, whether to ban or tax them, and how any money raised by fees/taxes should be used.
- Conservation Incentives and Assistance for Farmers & Policies to Support Local and Sustainable Food Production – Illinois lawmakers are currently considering several bills that would help Illinois farmers find additional markets for their locally-grown products and insure that farmers have access to the resources and information they need to grow food sustainably and engage in conservation practices on their land. Learn more about how to support these policy changes by reading about the ISA’s legislative priorities for 2020.
UIS CPAA faculty are here to support you as you GIVE, LEARN, and ACT in celebration of Earth Day 2020. Here’s to another fifty years of continued commitment to the protection and restoration of our Earth, our home.
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