By Rodika Tollefson, Contributor
On April 22, Earth Day will mark its 50th anniversary. Planned for the past four years, the event has 75,000 partners who expected millions of participants in about 190 countries. Universities and colleges, faith groups, city mayors, businesses, nonprofits, K-12 teachers, musicians, environmental advocates, global leaders—all planned big events to rally for the planet.
“Everybody in the world wanted to do something in a very visual way on the streets,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, the organization that coordinates Earth Day.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Social distancing, due to the growing pandemic, ended in-person gatherings for much of the world just one or two months before Earth Day. The streets became empty and quiet—in stark contrast to the vibrant crowds that Earth Day events typically bring.
But not even a global pandemic could stop organizations and individuals from showing their support. From coast to coast, Earth Day celebrations are going digital. Expect virtual demonstrations, lectures, films, interactive activities, livestreamed events, and more.
Making the Most of Technology
Rogers says that many components of the 50th anniversary were already digital. “The purpose wasn’t solely to recognize the 50th—it was to build an infrastructure of people who would become engaged and excited about participating in this large, global effort,” she says.
In the United States, an annual highlight of Earth Day is a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Instead, supporters worldwide can join in from home for a 15-hour live event streamed at earthday.org from 9 a.m.-11 p.m. EDT.
The live event will include segments such as first-person, prerecorded messages from leaders, celebrities, filmmakers, and activists, ranging from Al Gore and Zac Efron to Prince Albert II of Monaco and Patricia Espinosa (U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary). Additionally, some portions will be livestreamed in real time, including musical performances and segments hosted by celebrities like Ed Begley, Jr.
Another highlight of Earth Day is Earth Challenge 2020, a citizen science project that comes with an app in 11 languages. Focused on plastic pollution and air quality, Earth Challenge 2020 has two goals: to increase the amount of science data to help answer complex, global questions and to empower people around the world to act on that data and make their communities safer and healthier.
Other digital tools include an online interactive map where you can share your ideas and actions and a resource library for teachers, parents-turned-homeschoolers, and the general public. Numerous organizations are also hosting their own digital events.
The biggest difference, Rogers says, will be lack of rallies, demonstrations, and other in-person gatherings. “The missing element will be the action you see on the streets in most countries,” she says.
Amplifying the Conservation Message
Like many conservation and environmental organizations, the Seattle Aquarium started preparing for Earth Day a year in advance. When the pandemic closed the aquarium to the public, staff had about a month to move its entire Earth Action Week online.
“We looked at what can we do to translate this into an online, digital experience while keeping the vibe and essence of the goal, which is to inspire people to take action on behalf of our planet,” says Babs Pinnete, director of marketing.
Throughout the week of April 20-24, the Seattle Aquarium is planning virtual story times on social media, a talk by youth ocean advocates, a livestreamed diver experience, a presentation on microplastics, and a sustainable seafood cooking demonstration.
The aquarium already launched weekly livestreamed diver experiences, via Facebook, in March. The organizers were surprised to learn that technology has given their conservation message a megaphone, amplifying their local voice far beyond the Pacific Northwest region.
“We are so excited about the engagement with not only our local community but also with the national and international community.”
—Babs Pinnete, director of marketing, Seattle Aquarium
At a typical event, the aquarium can accommodate up to about 5,000 visitors. But a recent online diver presentation had 8,000 viewers during the 30-minute livestream, and a total of 23,000 views a week later from as far as Columbia. The interest and the numbers continue to grow daily.
“We are so excited about the engagement with not only our local community but also with the national and international community,” Pinnete says.
Now, the aquarium hopes to maintain that engagement, while teaching people not only about Puget Sound, where Seattle is located, but also “about our one-world ocean.”
Inspiring Conversations About Human Actions
For the past five years, Xanadu Events Co. has organized an annual Earth Day cleanup at Huntington Beach in Southern California. An average of a hundred people come out for an hour of beach yoga, followed by litter cleanup and conversation on how to make a positive environmental impact through personal actions.
This week the beach may be closed, but the Earth Day celebration continues. “We want to give people a moment to think about their gratitude for our life and our planet,” says organizer Heidi Blackstock, owner of Xanadu Events Co.
The two-hour virtual meet-up will kick off with a short stretch and meditation session via Zoom, then include a screencast of a YouTube video about animals and nature flourishing in the middle of the pandemic. Blackstock will then lead a discussion inspired by the video, and also delve into the topic of being more connected to one’s food source and growing food at home.
This new conversation layer is sparked by Blackstock’s own observations of how the halt of human activity due to COVID-19 is helping the planet heal. Even in the Los Angeles area, she sees many signs of this healing—including “the cleanest air ever,” a clear sky that she hasn’t seen in a long time, and chirping birds she’s “never heard so loud.”
“Around the world, animals are coming out and things are regrowing without the huge human footprint and the everyday drilling and building that are doing so much to our Earth,” she says. “We want to help people reflect on their actions and how we can come out of this coronavirus situation with a better sense of appreciation for our planet.”
Action in a Post-Pandemic World
When life returns to some sense of normalcy, Earth Day organizers plan one more show of massive support, but this time in person. One part of the event, the Great Global Cleanup, has been postponed and currently planned for October, the half-point of the 50th year.
“It’s complicated, but also rewarding, to see how many people still want to be part of the movement after Earth Day, after the 50th. They want to reconvene the moment they can.”
—Kathleen Rogers, president, Earth Day Network
“It’s complicated, but also rewarding, to see how many people still want to be part of the movement after Earth Day, after the 50th,” Rogers says. “They want to reconvene the moment they can.”
Rogers notes that the Earth Day movement has become a huge success through the years largely due to its emphasis on human health. And she says supporters are already asking: “What’s the next step after the 50th?”
So the Earth Day Network is looking ahead at 2021. Organizers chose next year’s theme this past October, months before the pandemic began. The 2021 theme, which Rogers calls poetic, is “Restore our planet.”
In a post-COVID world, perhaps this theme will take on a new meaning.