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Marking the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day with a Call for Individual Action

Elsa Partan

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. 

Marches, rallies, and events have been canceled or moved online for social distancing purposes, but local activists are encouraging people to grab a bag, don some gloves, and get to work cleaning up the environment.  

“It doesn’t matter where you do a cleanup, you can make an impact,” said Laura Ludwig of the Center for Coastal Studies. 


The first Earth Day in 1970 drew nearly 20 million people to rallies and protests, but today most gatherings are online at sites like Earthday.org.  

For Ludwig and many other locals, online events are useful, but not totally satisfying. 

“It just occurred to me that, surely, I’m not the only one who felt a little cooped up,” she said. 

The theme of this year’s global Earth Day is climate action, so both the Center for Coastal Studies and the Vineyard Conservation Society—which is challenging people to get out any day this month—are asking people to take action by cleaning up their local environment. 

“It [doesn’t] matter if it’s a beach or a forest or a lake or a riverbed,” Ludwig said. It can also be a sidewalk, trail, or road. 

Everyone who cleans, Ludwig added, should observe social distancing, wear face masks, wash their hands, and be extra cautious with discarded personal protective equipment (PPE). 

“Most of what we’ll pick up [will be] plastic,” she said. “And the connection between plastic on a beach and climate change is only a couple of dots.”  

For those who aren’t able to pick up trash, local activists say, the key is to simply get outside. 

“We should try to be outside and try to reconnect,” said Leslie Jonas, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and vice-chairwoman of the Native Land Conservancy. “A lot of people lost their connection to the environment, to earth, to the land, to the water.”

To observe the anniversary, Jonas said, people should reflect on their own lifestyles. It’s an opportunity to consider how they might grow a garden, avoid plastic use, and reduce waste. 

“For Natives, Earth Day is every day,” she said. “To have it highlighted in this way is wonderful. … So I would say take the opportunity to look inward.”  

The 50th anniversary also falls under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has deeply disrupted modern life. 

“Scientists have been saying for a long time that a pandemic like this was a real possibility. It just didn’t seem conceivable to most of us and now we’re living it,” said Heather Goldstone of the Woods Hole Research Center. “That same thing might apply to other science. So when scientists tell us how bad climate impacts could be and it seems unimaginable, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.” 

Still, Goldstone added, the swift and science-centric response to the pandemic should help people realize “we are capable of influencing the trajectory of really huge and potentially really scary global events.” 

Ultimately, Goldstone said, people should draw inspiration from the accomplishments of the global environmental movement during the past five decades as they face the challenges ahead.

“When we’re in a period where fear, and anxiety, and grief are so easily accessible to all of us it’s even more important to look back over 50 years of Earth Days and celebrate what has been accomplished, and then use this moment to propel us into more action.” 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.