Earth Day (April. 21, 2020)
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
It’s hard to imagine that the first Earth Day was held 50 years ago, on April 22, 1970. It’s the 50th anniversary of a day which was established to increase our awareness of the world’s environmental problems, and to encourage a global concern about the effects of climate change.
Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a staunch environmentalist. He hoped to provide a way for grassroots environmental movements to be unified in their activities, and to increase ecological awareness among the general public. “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy,” Senator Nelson said, “and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”
To that end, it was successful. Care for the earth is definitely on the political agenda. There were some notable early results to promote protection for the environment: the Environmental Protection Agency was established in July of that year. It also led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
The sad reality is that there has been a backlash against climate change in the last few years. The Trump administration has worked hard to destroy the work achieved in recent years. They deny the truth of scientific research, and are more concerned with the economy than with the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has been gutted, and regulations and laws protecting the environment have been rolled back. One critic has said clearly that the effect of Trump’s policies is that industries are being given an “open license to pollute, plain and simple.”
The record in Canada is somewhat better, but we are not doing enough. Canada signed on to the Paris climate change agreement in 2016. The current government says that climate change is a top priority. But at the same time, since much of our economy is based on resource extraction, the net effect is that governments find it necessary to compromise on actions to combat climate change.
A few years ago, I wrote that Earth Day is “an opportunity for us to reflect on how we affect the planet in our everyday choices. Human beings are becoming a burden for creation. We have spoiled the air, the water, the land — all in the name of progress.
“Let’s take advantage of this time then to slow down a bit and reflect honestly on the chaos of our busy lives. We can join in common cause to care for this planet which came to us as a gift and which we have treated as a commodity to be bought and sold and bartered for our own purposes.”
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit worldwide. Suddenly, we had no choice but to slow down. As a result, factories have stopped producing, there are fewer cars on the road, cruise ships have been docked, and the economy, while still important, has taken second place to healing the people.
The remarkable gift of this pandemic is that skies are clearing up, notably over China, India and California. Remarkable images from space satellites show significant clearance in the atmosphere. Fish and swans are swimming in the cleaner waters of the canals of Venice. Dolphins are dancing in empty cruise ports. Pollution is easing. Mother Earth is breathing a long sigh of relief.
About 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi told us that we are kin with the earth. He had a remarkable ability to hear the whole world sing a song of praise to the Creator. His famous Canticle of the Creatures includes the words, “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother
Sun … Sister Moon and Stars … Brothers Wind and Air … Sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Earth … Sister Death. All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. Happy those who endure in peace.”
We are related to each other. We are part of an interconnected web of creation, in which Mother Earth nurtures all creatures who walk on “this fragile earth, our island home” (words from one of the prayers in our Anglican liturgy). We are finding out just how fragile life is, and we are called to live together in peace.
A moment ago, I called it a “remarkable gift of this pandemic”. Most of us are feeling limited in this time. We are getting increasingly frustrated with the restrictions which we have to face, but we do it because we know that this is the safest way in which to care for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that we are also caring for Mother Earth.
I believe it is a helpful thing for us to think of this as a gift. Not everything that is happening in the world is negative. There are some wonderful gifts being given to us. Never again will we take some of the ordinary things of life for granted. We are learning the value of such simple things as a hug, a cup of coffee with a friend, a party, times to relax with families and friends in the park, and so on.
Earth care is one of the gifts of this pandemic.
I can only hope that we are learning something about walking more gently on Mother Earth which will guide us as we move into a new future, whatever the shape of that future.