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Facilitating New Beginnings

What is ‘Earth Day’ and why do we need it now more than ever? 

April 22nd is Earth Day. Widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, Earth Day is marked by more than one billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national and local policy shifts addressing climate change, and putting an end to activities that poison the environment and make the Earth barren. Earth Day is not a celebration, but a call to action for us to protect our planet and ourselves from destruction and desolation.  

Climate Justice + Racial Justice Protest

The Origins of Earth Day 

The first Earth Day took place on April 22nd in 1970. The idea for it started with United States senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, who was concerned about air and water pollution – especially in relation to man-made environmental disasters like the massive oil spill near California in 1969. Inspired by the anti-war youth movement taking place in response to the war in Vietnam, Nelson wanted to capture the spirit of that movement and get young people excited about protecting the environment. To that end, he proposed the idea for a teach-in on college campuses to the national media and persuaded Pete McCloskey to serve as his co-chair. The McCloskey–Nelson working relationship was significant in that it represented a bipartisan partnership (McCloskey was Republican, while Nelson was a Democrat). The two of them further recruited the young activist Denis Hayes, who purposefully chose the date April 22nd, as it falls between Spring Break and Final Exams and would allow the greatest number of student participation. While the focus was on young people, Hayes quickly recognized that environmental concerns have the potential to inspire all Americans. With the help of McCloskey and Nelson, they built a national staff of 85 people to promote events across the country. Their efforts soon broadened even further to include a wide range of organizations, faith groups, and others. The first Earth Day teach-ins were so successful that they inspired nearly 20 million Americans (representing 10% of the total population of the United States at the time) to take to the streets and demonstrate against the impacts of harmful pollution caused by industrial development.  

Earth Day in Canada 

Although the first American Earth Day teach-ins were of some interest to many Canadians because they resonated with the evident and growing concern about pollution, April 22, 1970 passed almost without public recognition in Canada. In Toronto, school teacher, writer, and environmentalist Wayland Drew organized an overnight vigil in Queen’s Park on 21st-22nd of April in honour of the American Earth Day, but the event suffered from a lack of publicity and drew only a couple of hundred people. One prominent environmentalist at the time was even quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying: “As for Earth Day, let the United States do that and it’s great. But it’s the wrong time for us, right in the middle of exams, and we have to rely on students.” (Wynn, 2020). It was not until September 11th, 1980, when Paul Tinari, a graduate student from Queen’s University, would launch the first Canadian Earth Day. The event featured ceremonial tree-planting attended by the Mayor of Kingston and the Principal of Queen’s University, and it encouraged MPs across the country to declare a cross-Canada annual Earth Day. Ten years later, in 1990, Earth Day Canada was founded as a national charitable organization in conjunction with the internationalization of the American Earth Day movement – and the date for Earth Day was moved to April 22nd in order to harmonize the Earth Day events globally.  

Earth Day in the 21st Century 

Today, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency. While Earth Day activities were initially concerned with rising levels of air and water pollution, in the 1990s the focus shifted to climate change. The activities of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 – which mobilized over 200 million people in 141 countries – presented a huge boost to recycling efforts and paved the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. During that summit, delegates laid out 15 principles recognizing the impact of human activities on sustainability and committing to sustainability goals. Five years later, in 1997, the United Nations Kyoto Protocol was signed setting commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as well as establish the connection between human activities and climate change. Despite the fact that Earth Day continues to inspire people to demand change (these days Earth Day activities mobilize billions of people in 193 countries), the fight for a clean environment is ongoing, as politicians and industrialists repeatedly fail to meet their obligations – as in the case of the United States of America, which pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2020. While civil society’s mobilization for climate change awareness around the world grows, so does environmental degradation and the subsequent costs in human life.  

Environmental Racism and “Sacrifice Zones” 

In a recent UN report entitled “The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment: non-toxic environment”, the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, David R. Boyd identifies a non-toxic environment as one of the substantive elements of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Special Rapporteur describes the ongoing toxification of people and the planet, which is causing environmental injustices and creating “sacrifice zones”. These zones are extremely contaminated areas where vulnerable, marginalized, and most often racialized groups bear a disproportionate burden on the health, human rights, and environmental consequences of exposure to pollution and hazardous substances. The report goes on to state that these so-called “sacrifice zones” exist all over the world and affect millions of people. It is estimated that pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths, which is to say that one in six deaths in the world involves diseases caused by pollution – a figure that is three times higher than deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, and 15 times higher than from all wars, murders and other forms of violence (Boyd and Orellana, 2022).  

The creation of “sacrifice zones” is just one example of environmental racism – a term coined by the Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis in 1982, who defined it as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements.” (MacDonald, 2020). To put it bluntly, environmental racism destroys (racialized) peoples’ health, wrecks natural environments, and threatens cultures. Unfortunately, in Canada, environmental racism is just as prevalent as it is elsewhere in the world. Consider for instance the so-called “Chemical Valley” area in Sarnia, Ontario, where more than 40 large petrochemical, polymer, oil-refining and chemical facilities operate in close proximity to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community – members of which have to endure physical and psychological health problems, including high rates of miscarriages, childhood asthma, and cancer (Jackson, 2010). Unsurprisingly, after visiting Canada in 2019, Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, wrote: “I observed a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples.” (MacDonald, 2020). 


In March 2020, a survey of 2000 young people aged 8–16 years, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, showed that 73% were worried about the state of the planet, 19% have had a bad dream about climate change, and 41% do not trust adults to tackle the challenges presented by climate change (Atherton, 2020). While it is regrettable that children should lose sleep over climate change, what is even more distressing is that they are quite justified in doing so – given that “Governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C, in stark contrast to increased climate ambitions and net-zero commitments” (Production Gap Report, 2021).  

Alongside the mental health impacts that arise directly from environmental degradation (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, the exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, and suicidal ideation), there are further dangers to mental health, often subsumed under the category of ecological anxiety (i.e., apprehension and stress about anticipated threats to salient ecosystems) and ecological grief (i.e., grief in relation to ecological loss). Although these are not fully understood psychological phenomena yet, empirical studies suggest that ecological grief falls into three main areas: grief associated with physical ecological losses, grief associated with the loss of environmental knowledge, and grief associated with anticipated future losses. A global study on health and climate change found that “exposure to heat waves in 2020 increased negative expressions on Twitter by 155 per cent. The study linked more than six billion global geolocated social media posts from Twitter with daily weather records from some 40,000 geographic regions, including data from nearly every country” (Issa, 2021). As the health of our planet continues to deteriorate – so does our own. 


Moving Forward 

In the conclusion to their UN report on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Special Rapporteurs David Boyd and Marcos Orellana state that  

A human rights-based approach to preventing exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals could save millions of lives every year, while avoiding billions of episodes of illness. The costs of prevention will be billions of dollars, but the benefits will be measured in the trillions. Safe chemicals will play an important role in the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon, zero-pollution future and a circular economy. Society has the requisite knowledge and ingenuity to fulfill the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but must overcome powerful vested interests in order to do so.

(Boyd and Orellana, 2022) 

In order for us to overcome the “powerful vested interests” that prevent us from rectifying today’s environmental injustices we cannot possibly adopt a business-as-usual approach to environmental issues. What is urgently needed is immediate and ambitious action to detoxify people’s bodies and the planet. Such action is indeed possible – as we witnessed first-hand during the pandemic closures, which shut down industrial activity and temporarily slashed air pollution levels around the world – providing us with a glimpse of what the world could look like again if we were to seriously commit to a zero-pollution, non-toxic environment (Watts and Kommenda, 2020). And while the current approaches to reduce CO2 levels and manage the risks posed by pollution and toxic substances are clearly failing, the good news is that the social and cultural environments we saw in 1970 are rising up again today — as a new generation of young (and not so young) people refuse to settle for empty platitudes and take to the streets by the billions to demand a new way forward, make an impact and drive change. 

Youth Playing Hockey Next to a Waste Plant, Ontario

Works Cited List 

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