Credit: George Danby

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my daughter and I slipped our canoe in the water for the first time this year. There was more ice than open water on our local pond, but we got what we came for — the clear, fresh air that held the promise of spring, exploration beyond the confines of our home, and a feeling of freedom that came with each stroke of the paddle, leaving the current events of COVID-19 behind for a while.

Even when the rest of society is closed, nature’s arms are still open, connecting and sustaining us in ways that are universal. Our natural lands, like the wildlife management area we canoed in, are a critical piece of the state’s infrastructure. They filter our drinking water, provide soil for our farms and gardens, and offer endless opportunities to exercise our minds and bodies.

The poet Wendell Berry says, “The earth is what we all have in common.”

Fifty years ago today, millions of people across the United States celebrated the first Earth Day as a way to highlight the importance of protecting our environment and human health. It was a turning point in our history, when Americans stood up and demanded a stop to the indiscriminate pollution of our air, land, and waters.

Sacrificing our rivers, skies, and health, they said, was not the path to prosperity. Our environment and economy are inextricably linked. Good stewardship of our natural resources, a healthy workforce, and investment in clean technologies will result in a stronger economy.

Elected leaders agreed, and by the end of 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human and environmental health. Within three years, congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Fifty years is a long time, but some things don’t change. Our jobs, environment, and health are still linked. Americans turn to nature for rejuvenation and exercise every day, regardless of their political persuasion. And investing in clean technology not only reduces pollution, but makes our workforce stronger, creating jobs in new sectors of the economy.

Maine people want their elected officials to take action on critical issues like climate change, which threatens our fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and brings illnesses like Lyme disease to the state.

The good news is that Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature are leading the way. They recently set ambitious — and achievable — goals to reduce carbon pollution by 80 percent within 30 years and passed legislation to transition Maine to a 100% clean energy future by 2050. Even as she oversees Maine’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mills says that addressing climate change remains a high priority.

We are at another turning point in our country’s history, seeing firsthand the ripple effect of a public health crisis on our businesses, our schools, and our communities. As a first response, we must address the critical needs of people who are suffering economic hardship, job loss, food insecurity, and homelessness.

But as the time comes to re-open and rebuild our economy, we have the chance to ask longer-term questions as well.

In what parts of our infrastructure and economy do we want to invest? Do we build a health care system that is there for all people, even in times of crisis? Do we subsidize dirty energy or invest in clean, forward-looking technology? Do we build a resilient future that doubles down on our natural infrastructure? Do we chart a future based on sound science or wishful thinking?

The value of the natural world has never been clearer. Now more than ever, we must protect its gifts of air, land and water, so they will be there for us every day and especially in our greatest times of need.

Maureen Drouin is executive director of the Maine Conservation Alliance and Maine Conservation Voters.