Earth Week was recently celebrated from April 18 to April 25, during which over a billion people around the world honored our beautiful planet. During this week every year, my Instagram page is flooded with artsy vacation photos of oceans, sunsets, forests and mountains to honor Earth, but for the rest of the year we aren’t as conscious. We pollute the air with dangerous toxins and destroy the land with industries and factories that overrun wildlife. As a result of our carelessness and irresponsibility, we harm plants, animals and marine life. We cannot continue to only celebrate the earth one week a year: we must cherish and respect our planet every single day so we can continue to call it our home.
Lack of concern for our planet is not unheard of, as the protection of the environment was never a primary concern for the U.S. In the 1960s, rampant pollution of leaded gas from automobiles and industrial smoke and sludge plagued the air, and Americans didn’t seem to care. These emissions resulted in smog, which occurs when the compounds emitted from vehicles, factories and powerplants interact with sunlight. This results in the creation of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis (Michigan in the World and the Environmental Justice HistoryLab, projects of the U-M History Department). Unlike most Americans, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, demonstrated concern for the environment. After the oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Nelson realized there needed to be a change, and he was determined to improve the deteriorating environment (earthday.org).
Inspired by the anti-war protests, Senator Nelson decided to promote the protection of the environment on college campuses (earthday.org). Nelson and Congressman Pete McCloskey (R) recruited Denis Hayes, an environmental activist, to organize the campus teach-ins. They chose April 22 in the spring of 1970 to begin the teach-ins and demonstrations, and they named this day “Earth Day.” Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans at the time, which was 10% of the total United States’ population, to demonstrate humans’ overwhelming impact on the environment over the last 150 years through organized protests and rallies. People from all over the political spectrum showed their support for the creation of Earth Day, and the efforts of millions of Americans led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act (earthday.org). Because of its remarkable success, Earth Day continues to be celebrated every year to recognize, honor and respect the sanctity of our earth.
Despite all its negative consequences, the pandemic has actually improved our environment. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that air pollution kills 7 million people each year worldwide, and more than 80% of the population breathes this unhealthy air every day (WHO, 2020). Since stay-at-home orders were mandated, air quality has significantly improved around the world. In China, emissions of harmful gases and other pollutants decreased by 25% at the beginning of 2020, and the quality of air improved in 337 cities across China. The WHO estimated that this drastic improvement has saved up to 50,000 lives in China (CNN, 2020). Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is an air pollutant composed of nitrogen and oxygen that forms as a result of the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas, oil and diesel. Nitrogen Dioxide can harm humans, causing inflammation of the airways, worsened coughs and increased asthma attacks. Because of the lockdown of factories and restricted travel, the concentration of NO2 in air has dropped remarkably in cities all over the world (Otmani et al., 2020).
Since industrial waste and sewage has consequently also slowed, water quality has improved. The River Ganges, located in India, has been one of the most polluted rivers in the world. According to the Central Pollution Control Board of India, (CPCB) water quality there has improved by 40%-50% (CPCB, 2020). For the first time in decades, the water in the Ganga River has become fit for drinking (Khan, Shah and Shah, 2020).
When there is clean water, aquatic life flourishes. Many animals are returning to their natural habitats from clearing waters. As factories and industries shut down, there was less pollution in the water to harm aquatic life. Endangered otters, such as the Asain Small Clawed Otter, are returning to the lakes in Malaysia (Degnarain, 2020). Because there were no humans to roam beaches and leave behind garbage and plastic, endangered leatherback turtles in Juno Beach, Florida, have been able to hatch their eggs in peace. In the beginning of summer in 2020, staff from the Loggerhead MarineLife Center already found 76 nests two weeks into the nesting season. They said it was a “significant” increase from the same time in the previous year (Guardian, 2020).
Just one year of lockdown has significantly improved our planet, and this change wasn’t even intentional! It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for us to realize that we need to treat the Earth with respect. However, this change will not reverse the years of disregard and mistreatment already at play. We must be conscious of our ecological footprint, as there is still so much more progress to be made. If the world can improve so much in just over a year, imagine how much change we can make in the years to come, especially if we are intentional!