Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. At a time when most of us are deepening our appreciation for nature, it is hard to imagine that not too long ago polluters were dumping raw waste into our rivers and spewing toxic chemicals into our air with little to no consequence. Thankfully, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson tapped into the spirit of activism of those times, drawing on a growing awareness of the need to protect the Earth and the people that depend on it, by advancing the idea of an Earth Day.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans rallied in parks and streets to demand stronger protections for our air, land and water. The voices of those millions laid the groundwork for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, championed by Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie. Policymakers listened and found a way forward. Democracy worked.
Ten years earlier, the Natural Resources Council of Maine was founded by a group of Mainers to protect the Allagash River from development that would have destroyed that special place forever. People spoke up. Policymakers listened and found a way forward. The Allagash became the first federally designated Wilderness Waterway. Democracy worked.
COVID-19 has altered our way of life, reinforcing deep-seated inequities, upending our economy and highlighting the importance of strong, science-backed decision making to protect our health and economy. As we grapple with how to navigate stay-at-home orders or home schooling, many of us are discovering nature in our backyard or nearby as a place of solace and respite. We are recognizing the importance of safe streets and paths for walking and biking.
These are special places that exist because of strong environmental protections and forward-thinking policy. The pandemic has reminded us of the healing, restorative power of nature. It has reminded us of the importance of access to open space — whether it be a park, beach, sidewalk, or bike path — for exercise, reflection, or a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has also empowered polluters to partner with the Trump Administration’s EPA to continue trying to decimate critical environmental safeguards. Nearly 100 environmental and public health protections have been rolled back already. The fossil fuel industry is also pushing for the dismantling of plastic pollution laws while at the same time pressing for more single-use plastic production, which would further endanger our health and the climate.
We must not allow polluters and the fossil fuel industry to take advantage of the chaos that has been created by the pandemic. Rolling back effective environmental safeguards puts all of our communities further at risk.
As we recover and rebuild, let us remember the central lessons of that first Earth Day 50 years ago. Activism matters. Sound, science-based policy matters. A strong, active democracy matters. Your voice matters.
We must raise our voices and not allow the recovery from this pandemic to enrich the fossil fuel industry whose actions endanger the health of people and the planet. Let us raise our voices for a healthier, more resilient world. Let us raise our voices for a recovery that tackles another great challenge of our time — climate change — by investing in clean energy solutions and stronger environmental protections that we know from experience here in Maine will help grow our economy, generate new jobs, strengthen communities, and create a better way of life for everyone, not just a few.
On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we hope you can find a quiet space in nature, whether it’s your backyard or a local land trust, to breathe, be safe, and be calm. Take a moment to reflect on the importance of a healthy environment to our well-being and safety. And then come back home with a renewed sense of vigor to fight for the better world we know future generations deserve.
Lisa Pohlmann is the CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.