Earth Day 2020 in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons We Are Learning

It is the eve of Earth Day 2020 (Wednesday, April 22) and its fiftieth anniversary. Last year, I collected a bunch of inspirational quotes and did some philosophizing. 2020 is a historic occasion, which we will celebrate online while something else – something almost beyond our imagination – is unfolding in our lives. Like most periods in history that are lived through by us humans, we do not know when, how – or even if – it will end. It’s an event that we are living, in slow motion. As the World Health Organization’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed recently, “We are building our boat while sailing in it.”

Messages, performances and calls to action for Earth Day 2020. A time for reflection.

Jamaica’s Minister with responsibility for climate change issues Daryl Vaz tweeted a few days ago:

Today, we’re facing two crises. One, the coronavirus pandemic. The other, a slowly building climate catastrophe. As we social distance and provide essential services to conquer COVID-19, let’s agree.

Agree, yes. But, in many ways, our planet is more divided than ever. As climate change and environmental issues have revealed to us (over and over) we are faced with the realities of inequality across the globe. COVID-19 is demonstrating to us (quite starkly at times) the gap between the haves and the have-nots – and our wildly varying responses to these two challenges.

It’s because we disregard our place in the natural world and we disrespect the environment and animals that COVID-19 happened. – Jane Goodall

Yes, of course – climate change and COVID-19 are connected. Those with the power to make decisions and take action have made mistakes and missteps along the way, and have not made the right decisions at the right time and in the right places. Individual citizens have become confused and rendered almost helpless (and sometimes hopeless) by the urgent messaging. Some don’t know how to “do the right thing,” or what the right thing is. Others simply cannot do it, because of the circumstances in which they live. And many humans either don’t know, or don’t care (until it affects them personally).

Rumbling along in the background are rumors and misinformation. With both climate change and COVID-19, there are the denialists – a great danger for mankind. Some of these, unfortunately, are in positions of great power. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Trump are two examples that immediately spring to mind, but they are not the only ones. Last year was a year for misinformation and disinformation (the deliberate kind), so no surprises here.

All of this presents real challenges for climate change and environmental activists. However, around the world there are many beacons of light. Many older stalwarts led the way – some, like Kenyan Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, are sadly no longer with us, but their light still shines. 93-year-old David Attenborough (who is now teaching geography to students on lockdown, online) and 86-year-old Jane Goodall (a new biopic documentary will premiere on National Geographic tomorrow) bring all the same passion to their work and advocacy that they did as young people. Perhaps even more so.

Jhannel Tomlinson and her colleagues are encouraging everyone to upload short videos to celebrate Earth Day tomorrow – online. Please join in!

However, I want to salute the young champions for the cause, who are making the flame leap higher and inspiring each other as they move along the path of activism. Jhannel Tomlinson, winner of this year’s Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Environmental Protection, sees a link between the two issues, urging young people to tap into their own creativity and collective power for Earth Day 2020.

Young environmental activists in Uganda. (Photo: David Mugisha/Twitter)

Ms. Tomlinson, and other young Jamaican colleagues (including “Jamaican Ecofeminist” Ayesha Constable, Chevening Scholar and communications student Dainalyn Swaby, and several others) want youth to understand the connections. Our health and that of the environment are, of course, bound up together. We must learn some lessons, right now.

Long term lessons.

The world is not a bowl of fruit from which we can just take what we wish. – David Attenborough

Now, also this year, the people at Kingston Creative (as an Earth Day special on Arts and the Environment was in the works) have moved the planned April event online – on Sunday, April 26, 2020. Of course, it was to have been a big splash downtown. But there will be a vibrant virtual offering on IGTV, with a range of participants, videos, music, art and more. Tune in from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Kingston Creative’s online celebration of Arts and the Environment will take place on IGTV on Sunday. Do join, and participate!

Prior to this, please join me and a brilliant group of activists (including Jhannel, Ayesha and Jamaica Environment Trust Founder/Chair Diana McCaulay) on Friday afternoon, online for a discussion on how creatives can (and should) respond to environmental issues. This will be on Zoom:


Finally… Please, let us not forget the people who founded Earth Day, fifty years ago. One of these was a man with a radical vision, Denis Hayes, founder of the Bullitt Foundation, who organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

If nothing else, climate change and COVID-19 must have taught us already: We are one Planet, and only global unity can overcome.

Earth Day is not about nice words and speeches. It has always been about action. Even though many of us are at home, within four walls, let us get active online; and let us plan, long term, for a better Planet Earth when we emerge from all of this.

Young people like Jhannel Tomlinson are taking up the torch that has been handed to them by previous generations. It is more important than ever to keep that flame alight – and to hold it aloft.

Earth Day messages chalked on a New York City street in 1970. Of course, climate change was at that time not a part of the environmental movement. Credit…Santi Visalli/Getty Images

2 thoughts on “Earth Day 2020 in the Time of COVID-19: Lessons We Are Learning

  1. Happy Earth Day, Emma! You are right to emphasize that the environmental cause is not about pretty words – it has to be about action. Good to see the number of youngsters interested in the cause.


    1. Yes, Angela! It is very encouraging. These are difficult and complex issues, and they are trying to wrap their heads around them and importantly, work out solutions!


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