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Fiftieth anniversaries are usually big deals. In ordinary times, that is. The ‘golden’ anniversary of Earth Day however will likely be eclipsed by the extraordinary health crisis the world faces in 2020. Over the past 49 years, the celebration of Earth Day on April 22nd had become the biggest civic event on the planet. This year may be a temporary exception.

So COVID-19 aside (for one moment), you may ask what is the significance of Earth Day in the 21st Century? Millennials and Gen Z’s may suggest to their parents and grandparents that 50 years of activating around Earth Day has failed. We now face an existential threat to our planet. These questioning young people are painfully aware that we must make significant lifestyle changes to save the planet, and their future, before it’s too late.

With a 50-year lens, Earth Day began – and continues to be — the rallying point that recognizes the inextricable link between people and our planet. In 1970, almost 20 years before the earliest warnings about global warming, Earth Day marked a watershed, the birth of modern environmentalism. Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring, arguably catalyzed this sea change. Her compelling scientific treatise was that people could no longer idly ignore the destruction of nature caused by pollution and the wholesale use of pesticides. The threats that Carson outlined — the contamination of the food chain, cancer, genetic damage, deaths of entire species — served as a wake-up call. Nature was vulnerable to human interaction…technological progress needed to be redirected and harnessed to protect the environment.

Earth Day, and the championing that led up to it by its founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, forced environmental protection onto the national political stage. That first Earth Day started as an environmental teach-in. Twenty million Americans — 10% of the total population of the United States — took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. In 1970, Earth Day inspired an immediate wave of environmental action, including The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Act, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The unrest of the 1960s also stimulated the mounting public interest in land conservation. It’s no coincidence that the New Canaan Land Trust was founded in 1967, during the build-up to Earth Day. The acknowledged link between people and nature gave birth to the notion that people need to protect and enjoy open space before it’s too late. So began the New Canaan Land Trust. With conservation as our mantle, the Land Trust has gone on to conserve and protect almost 400 acres of open space in New Canaan. Today, we are also focused on connecting our community to these precious natural resources, and fostering continued awareness of the need for open space.

So here we are in 2020, confronted with a global health pandemic that has eclipsed the daily headlines about climate change, and likely, the upcoming 50th anniversary of Earth Day. However, in my view, the necessity to radically change our behavior due to COVID-19 will inform how we should change our behavior to halt the progression of climate change. Earth Day remains significant today as a rallying point for us to take on this challenge. Not just once a year, but every day. Let’s do what we can, no matter how small, to make the planet greener, cleaner and healthier. Earth Day Everyday is really important for our future. The balance of nature remains in question.

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