At a time when we face political inaction and a looming climate crisis, the significance of Earth Day's 50th anniversary is more relevant than ever.
It's hard for me to believe that it's been a half-century since the first Earth Day. I was almost fourteen years old on April 22, 1970, and like many kids, I spent the day picking up trash at my junior high school. I often reflect on my father’s vision for “an environmental teach-in” which would spark a global movement successful beyond his wildest dreams. “The purpose of Earth Day", he said, "is to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.”
Today, this vision could not be more important. Environmental activism is once again shaking the political establishment. People are rising up in their communities, churches, synagogues, and schools. The modern environmental movement has never felt more energized. And yet, our nation has not been this politically or socially divided since the 1960s.
When it comes to my father’s original vision of an inclusive, bipartisan environmental movement rooted in social justice, we still have work to do. That's why I was so excited to have the Outrider Foundation develop a short film about my father’s original vision and its compelling relevance for today.
Our film’s core message is that by working together – across party lines and generational divides – we can address the environmental challenges that affect all of humanity, and the fragile planet upon which all life depends. I've enlisted two climate crusaders in the effort: Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash and RepublicEN founder and former Congressman Bob Inglis.
Twenty million people responded to my father’s call to action that first Earth Day, demonstrating the power of individual action to change the course of history and help build a brighter future. Earth Day was successful far beyond my father’s wildest dreams.
At a time when we face political inaction and a looming climate crisis, the significance of that first Earth Day is more relevant than ever. We face the most significant environmental challenge of all time, and it's critical that we take stock of this moment to see the urgent challenges and opportunities it brings.
I think a lot about my father’s words on that first Earth Day, when he stated that ecology is a big science, not a narrow one, one that cares as much about some of the worst environments in America in our inner cities – where clean air and clean water are rights for all Americans. He believed that we all have the right to a bright future of economic and environmental wellbeing for this and future generations. And he believed in the power of everyday Americans to make a difference.
In recent years, the environmental community and the general public have begun to see our challenge through this lens. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have framed the issue through a much-needed social justice viewpoint, and have helped give birth to a new movement that views the environment, the economy, and a socially just world as inextricably linked.
What gives me hope? The unimaginable power of the individual to make a difference. I reflect on Rosa Parks’ single word of defiance: “No.” Or Greta Thunberg’s simple lonely act of protest before the Swedish Parliament.
Surely, they could have never dreamt that they would change the course of history through these simple acts of principle and conscience, just as my father could not have imagined that Earth Day would advance the modern environmental movement in the manner that it did.
Today, I am grateful beyond words that Bob Inglis and Varshini Prakash have agreed to join me in our Earth Day film. Their personal stories are a source of daily inspiration.
To me, it doesn’t matter that they approach the issue with different policy responses. What matters, what we desperately need, is a conversation about how we can move forward, with the social will and political capital necessary to build a brighter future.
Varshini visited us in Madison for her interview and a hike through the oak savanna prairie of Governor Nelson State Park. I flew down to South Carolina to visit with Bob at his serene and beautiful country home, walking the woods with his dog, feeding the horses and marveling at Mary Anne’s vegetable garden. The Generous film crew was terrific, and I hope you enjoy these stories.
No doubt, my father would deeply appreciate what Bob and Varshini are doing to advance the environmental cause. I'm looking forward to sharing more with you in the coming months. Stay tuned!