50th Earth Day calls for a new, better normal

earth from outer space

50th Earth Day calls for a new, better normal

by Elvia Thompson and Suzanne Kilby Etgen

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s clear that the struggle to restore our environment — to heal the Chesapeake Bay — is not unlike the struggle we have faced for the last six weeks. The entire world has been affected by the pandemic, just as the whole world is affected by climate change.

Locally, we are all especially affected by pollution in the air and in our waters. Only by working together will we restore and protect the environment that nurtures us. The pandemic has taught us that lesson.

For the past six weeks, we have worked together to flatten the curve. We’ve each done our part — some working at home, “teaming and zooming,” helping our children learn remotely, and forgoing in-person social events.

Simultaneously, some of us face real danger on the front lines in our hospitals, grocery stores and other essential businesses. There is real suffering, not only from the virus but also from loss of income.

We have put aside our own wants, our own needs, and even our own safety, for the health of people we cannot see or will never know, as much as for those we hold dear. Because of this we are making progress.

During this time, the natural world has become a refuge. We are spending more time in our backyards, visiting local parks, and walking through our neighborhoods. Many of us are gardening and adding vegetables to our landscape. Sheltering in place gives us the opportunity to observe the natural world waking up in the miracle of spring, a miracle that happens each year, whether we are watching or not.

As we’ve noticed these new things, we are reminded that nature is an integral part of our lives. It’s a lesson from the pandemic.

Healing our environment takes all of us, not just those working on environmental issues, but every person. In the 2017 Citizen Stewardship Indicator Survey, 87 percent of Anne Arundel County residents believed that we can clean up our local rivers and streams if we work together.

We agree, and there is scientific evidence to back that up!

In the last five years, residents, watershed organizations and local governments have teamed up to install a record number of restoration projects and water clarity, bay grasses and blue crabs have all begun to rebound. Yet, in that same survey, less than 40 percent of residents believed their actions contribute to local water pollution. The pandemic teaches us that individual actions matter.

That’s the message of this Earth Day — more relevant, more powerful, more comforting than ever. A clean environment is critical — our very breath depends on clean air, our life depends on clean water. Our economy, our food, and our health depend on a clean environment. A clean environment is within our reach because our actions matter.

We want to “get back to normal,” but we know that normal will never be the same. Instead, what we need is a Better Normal – a way of life that has, at its core, respect for science, understanding of the interdependence of all life, and commitment to work together in good times and bad.

In a better normal, we all do our part. We join our local environmental organizations — the ones that work in our neighborhood, city, or county. And we join regional and national organizations that address broader environmental issues.

We make small changes that make a difference in our own homes… we plant trees, reduce throw-away plastic, drive no-emissions electric cars, say no to toxic pesticides, grow vegetables and native plants to feed the pollinators. We teach our kids that our collective efforts matter.

Go outside today. Let the sun warm your face. Feel the wind. Smell the Earth waking up. Trust the science and your neighbors. Know that your actions matter. Let’s build a Better Normal together.

Published in the Capital Gazette, April 22, 2020.
Suzanne Kilby Etgen is the director of the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy.
Elvia Thompson is the president and co-founder of Annapolis Green.

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