A group of residents in my little town of Sandwich has been brainstorming for the better part of a year on ways they can tackle humankind’s biggest challenge. They call themselves the Sandwich Climate Action Coalition.
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a good time to step back and review what can be achieved by local action. After all, the foundational meme of Earth Day is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
To be honest, I’ve been skeptical of local efforts in the face of climate change. Yes, we all should be mindful of the urgency of global warming. Yes, we all should do what we can to mitigate global catastrophe. And of course the most effective political action starts at the grass roots.
But the scale of climate change often seems to dwarf what might be accomplished by puny local actions, no matter how earnest.
Earth Day had a different focus on April 22, 1970. It was all about environmental degradation. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published seven years earlier, had raised the alarm about the insidious effects of pesticides. A massive oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 provided a more visual call to arms. Polluting power plants, toxic waste dumps, rivers poisoned with raw sewage, wildlife extinctions and more — it all fed citizen alarm that culminated in political action.
The 1970s were the Decade of the Environment. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Other firsts included the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental degradation is far from a solved problem. But in 2020 all those planetary ailments are eclipsed by the existential question of whether life on Earth is sustainable without urgent and sweeping change. Lately the weight and scale of that change, and the forces aligned against it, seem to crush citizen action rather than energize it.
And then came the pandemic.
There will be endless debate (and there should be) about the way humans have responded to the global spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus. At the same time, we’ve seen stunningly abrupt changes in the behavior of almost all Earthlings. It gives fresh meaning to “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
We now have powerful new proof about how behavioral change on a massive scale can have astonishing results. Consider, for instance:
— Smog-free photos of Los Angeles, Seoul, New York City, and the Himalayas visible from India for the first time in decades afford a visual epiphany humans haven’t experienced since the iconic “earthrise” photos taken by Apollo 8 astronauts 52 years ago.
— After beach closings and the disappearance of tourists, sea turtle hatchlings from Florida to Thailand are surviving in numbers many researchers haven’t seen in their careers.
— Despite real hardship, when faced with an existential threat, people everywhere are showing how they can remodel nearly every aspect of their lives — and find creative new ways to work and stay connected.
We’re all just beginning to think post-pandemic thoughts. As the smog of ordinary activity clears — if just for a brief moment — we have a once-in-a-lifetime luxury to take stock of our situation and how we might (must) change the deeply dysfunctional ways we live, work and play.
Might the collapse of oil markets be an opening wedge for rethinking our disastrous dependence on fossil fuels and how we might accelerate our transition to Earth-friendly energy?
As the pandemic opens ominous cracks in our health system — the most expensive in the world, but also the most inefficient — will we invent new ways to meet people’s needs and maximize the effectiveness of health providers and institutions? Telemedicine is happening on a scale its proponents have only fantasized about.
Concrete example: A close friend with a chronic lung condition came down with Covid-19. Normally she’d be whisked into a hospital bed. Instead, her doctor monitored her blood-oxygen level at home with a $35 device, to make sure she wasn’t getting into dangerous territory. Fortunately, she has recovered and is on the mend.
As for local activists everywhere, I hereby apologize for my earlier skepticism. Crisis does contain opportunity as well as danger. May this crisis, on this 50th Earth Day, create a new opportunity to change the world.
(Richard Knox is a journalist who lives in Sandwich.)