Earth Day students

The Ghosts of Earth Day

The spirits of Earth Days Past, Present and Future give us a perspective on environmental politics.

Suppose they gave an Earth Day and nobody came?


Wednesday's 50th Anniversary of Earth Day was an afterthought, a non-event in a world so preoccupied with surviving to 2021 that surviving to 2100 doesn't move the needle.

So let's shoehorn this annual event into a Dickensian model and look at the spirits of Earth Days' Past, Present and Future.

Earth Day's 1970 debut and its 20th Anniversary in 1990 were high marks, as I discussed in this space two weeks ago.

The Ghost of Earth Day Past

The 1990 event followed a string of environmental disasters in the 1980's.

They included the Bhopal, India, chemical disaster in 1984; the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl two years later; the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole; the first widely-reported concern about climate change in 1988; medical waste washing up on popular beaches in New Jersey; and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The airwaves were filled with messages of empathy from industry, many of them from some of the most notorious corporate polluters, assuring Mother Earth that they're on her side.

The term "greenwashing," credited to environmentalist Jay Westerveld, caught on as petrochemical companies publicly wrapped themselves in the green flag while quietly continuing to lobby against environmental regulation, and while planting the seeds for a durable cottage industry in climate denial.

Worldwide rallies drew millions and celebrities virtually climbed all over each other in support of a cause whose time has come.

But alas, just like Britney Spears or Justin Bieber, Earth Day peaked at age 20.

Earth Day 1990 at Charles River Esplanade in Boston, Massachusetts. (Credit: Paul-W/flickr)

The Ghost of Earth Day Present

This year, plans for more big crowds on the Day's silver anniversary ran directly into COVID-19.

It was as if Earth Day had entered the Witness Protection Program.

NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN all ran obligatory Earth Day items with an inevitable tie to COVID-19 by including video of bears, coyotes, and other critters moving in on deserted city streets.

All four networks ran the same video of goats wandering through a desolate Welsh town (Special shout-out to NBC, who struck a special blow for East Coast Urban Elite Media Bias by identifying the goats as "sheep.")

A scan of the program schedules for cable and broadcast TV shows for April 22 include a couple of environment-themed offerings on the National Geographic Channel, but that's about it.

The impact statement? Environmental advocacy's highest-profile event was a dud.

There were a few glimmers on the broadcast news front. NBC used the day to announce its special "Climate Team," with the venerable Al Roker promising "even more" climate coverage. A useful perspective on "even more" comes in the form of multiple media content surveys that show the climate crisis pulling less airtime than any Kardashian.

CNN is promoting a one-hour climate special scheduled to run at 10pm ET tonight. "Chief Climate Correspondent" Bill Weir has managed to find airtime even amid the single-minded coverage of the pandemic. Good for him.

The Ghost of Earth Day Future

Let's spitball a little bit about the 100th Anniversary of Earth Day in 2070, when I will be 113 years old.

A mega-event on the National Mall might have another threat by then. Projections by Climate Central suggest that a large part of the Mall could be underwater during severe storms. In a worst case scenario, collapse of land-based ice in Antarctica and Greenland could raise the seas by 12 feet, making the Mall a permanent lagoon.

Cleanup of the nuclear and chemical morass at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, which started in the 1990's, should just about be wrapped up in the best case scenario. A 2019 estimate, however, left the door open for cleanup well into the 22nd Century.

The plastic we've loaded into our oceans should still be there. And then some. Those oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Should that immense problem ever reverse itself, scientists say it will take a lot more than 50 years.

One major manmade problem that stands a good chance of resolving is the depletion of stratospheric ozone over the poles. A global treaty has limited use of ozone-destroying chemicals. NASA and other agencies expect the ozone layer to repair itself over the next century.

We stand a good chance, I hope, of retaining or even building on the heroic effort to protect wild lands from Yellowstone to the Serengeti. Recently, Marine Protected Areas have offered protection to vast, ecologically valuable ocean areas. Of course, marvels like the Outer Banks or the canals of Venice may not have any protection against rising seas.

Access to water could replace access to oil as a primary cause of conflict between nations. Wind and solar power stand ready to dominate—unless our "clean energy" is replaced by something cleaner.

The last of the hundreds of lifetime Federal judgeships appointed by President Trump should be ready to leave the bench.

Long-held myths may fall by the wayside: From Eastern nations, the absurd notion that powdered rhino horn or shark fin soup are key status symbols; from the West, the cynical manufacture of doubt about science.

By the 100th Earth Day, we can hope that humanity's environmental ethic becomes more central to how we live our lives.

Think of how we've changed over the last 50 years—in 1970, the U.S. still had legal DDT, leaded gasoline, and a functioning commercial whaling station (in Richmond, California).

If nothing else is certain, it's safe to say that it'll be interesting.

I can't wait to be 113 and find out.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Contact him at pdykstra@ehn.org or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

Banner photo: Oceanway Middle School students on Earth Day 2010. (Credit: JAXPORT/flickr)

bangladesh child
Big Stock Photo

‘Deadliest outbreak ever seen’: Climate crisis fuels Bangladesh’s worst dengue epidemic

Mosquito-borne disease once largely limited to Dhaka spreads countrywide as higher rainfall and heat lead to fivefold rise in cases in a year, with children the hardest hit.

Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
EV truck
Photo by Cyrus Crossan on Unsplash

For truckers driving EVs, there’s no going back

Electric trucks still make up only a tiny fraction of trucks on the road in the United States.
Hybrid Toyota
Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

Hybrid cars enjoy a renaissance as all-electric sales slow

Automakers like Ford, Kia and Toyota are offering more hybrid options to appeal to buyers who aren’t ready for fully electric vehicles.

Pollution linked to surge in eczema cases

Air pollution caused by wildfires has been linked to a surge in eczema and dermatitis cases in North America, research shows.

Meadow brown butterflies ‘adapt’ to global heating by developing fewer spots

Female meadow brown butterflies who develop in warmer weather sport fewer spots on their wings, in an unexpected adaptation to global heating.

young voters
Big Stock Photo

Biden needs young voters. Can his climate policy rally them?

Young people helped deliver victories for Democrats in the last two election cycles, motivated by issues like climate change, abortion rights and gun control. But Biden risks losing some of those voters — not to Trump, his likely opponent, but to disaffection.

What if the clean energy transition costs much less than we’ve been told?

Talk about astronomical costs of a sustainable economy is leaving out some of the savings of using fewer fossil fuels, according to a new analysis.
From our Newsroom
environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

climate change COP28

An audio diary from the COP28 climate conference, Part 1

Sights, sounds and scenes from the largest climate gathering on the planet.

COP28 climate change conference

An audio diary from the COP28 climate conference, Part 2

The sights, sounds and scenes from the largest climate gathering on the planet.

republican climate change denial

Opinion: House Speaker Mike Johnson’s climate change playbook — deny the science, take the funding

The two-faced charade of climate denial while diving into the pot of federal renewable incentives and tax breaks.

childrens health climate change

Delays in joining the RGGI regional climate program means excess ER visits and child illness in Pennsylvania

Up to 128 premature deaths from air pollution could have been prevented if the state had entered the program in 2022 as planned.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Carlos Gould on wildfire smoke and our health

“Information matters a lot — trying to explain not just that there’s a problem, but how to do something about it.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.