Earth Day turns 50: ‘The Earth is where all of us are sheltering in place’

  • Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas pictured at her home in Northampton. Gazette file photo

  • Dandelions bloom at Millside Park in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A pine sapling grows on the bank of Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Late afternoon sun illuminates the bank of Nashawannuck Pond, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The sun sets behind a row of evergreens near Brookside Cemetery in Easthampton, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Earth Day 2020 comes at a tumultuous time. COVID-19 has upended our lives. The number of infections keeps soaring world-wide and entire countries are sheltering in place.

Out of caution, many are keeping physical distance from each other. But out of compassion, many are helping any way they can — staying connected by phone or internet with those who are lonely; sewing masks for desperate health care workers; making donations to groups that help migrants and the homeless; pushing for policies that protect the lowest-earning members of society.

If there was ever a time in which humanity should finally recognize that we belong to one connected family on Earth, this should be it. We share a single planet, drink from the same water and breathe the same air.   

So, whether hunkered down at home or hospital, or working on the front lines, we are all doing our part to face a common enemy together. When COVID-19 is finally behind us, instead of returning to normal life, we must hold on to these lessons in the fight against climate change.

Below are six lessons the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about our response to climate change.

1. Science matters. We can save lives by funding, accessing and understanding the best science available. The science on climate change has been clear for decades, but we’ve failed in communicating the danger to the public, leading to slow action and widespread denial of the facts.

2. How we treat the natural world affects our well-being. The loss of habitat and biodiversity creates conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 to spill into human communities. And if we continue to destroy our lands, we also deplete our resources and damage our agricultural systems.

3. The sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place. Quick and drastic action can flatten the curve for coronavirus and free up health care resources, lowering death rates. Similarly, drastic action on climate change could reduce food and water shortages, natural disasters and sea level rise, protecting countless individuals and communities.

4. We have the ability to make drastic changes very quickly. When sufficiently motivated, we can suspend business as usual to help each other. All over the world, healthy people are changing their lifestyles to protect the more vulnerable people in their communities. Similar dedication for climate change could transform our energy consumption immediately. All of us can make a difference and play an important role in the solution.

5. All of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally. Those with underlying social, economic or physical vulnerabilities will suffer most. A society burdened with social and economic inequality is more likely to fall apart in a crisis. We must also recognize that industries and people who profit from an unjust status quo will try to interrupt the social transformation that a crisis requires.

6. Holding on to a vision of a just, peaceful and sustainable Earth will give us strength for the future. Earth Day 2020 will be remembered as a time when humanity was reeling from a pandemic. But we pray that this year will also be remembered as a time when we all were suddenly forced to stop what we were doing, pay attention to one another and take action.

Business as usual — digging up fossil fuels, cutting down forests and sacrificing the planet’s health for profit, convenience and consumption — is driving catastrophic climate change. It’s time to abandon this destructive system and find sustainable ways to inhabit our planet. 

The Earth is where all of us — humans and all living creatures — are sheltering in place. We need each other to get through this. We belong to each other. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other? What would it look like to absorb the lessons of pandemic and to fight for a world in which everyone can thrive? 

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as fear and illness sweep the globe, we listen for voices that speak of wisdom, generosity, courage and hope. And as always, we find solace in the natural world. In the suddenly quiet streets and skies, we can hear birds sing.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade and are co-editors of the book “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis,” an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. Margaret is Missioner for Creation Care for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern Conference of New England, United Church of Christ. She lives with her husband in Northampton.
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