Earth Day in COVID-19 Times

It has been half a century since Americans marked the first Earth Day. Launched when highly visible environmental disasters often made headlines, Earth Day was a deliberate effort to build awareness and draw together the groundswell of popular concern about the condition of the planet.

We should remember, though, that Earth Day is not just about pollution; it is about humanity’s relationship with the natural systems of our planet. This year’s Earth Day is demonstrating in the starkest terms that we all occupy the same world, in ways we could never have imagined 50 years ago.  COVID-19 is forcing us all to respect the unbreakable connections — good and bad — between people and nature.

researchers in waders in water

We often forget how much the state of the environment has changed since 1970. Over a century of largely unregulated industrial and urban growth had left many natural systems in disarray. In 1969 Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River literally caught fire; in California a 35-mile-long oil slick blanketed the coastline. Across the U.S., the Delaware and other rivers were choked with a witch’s brew of factory discharge and municipal sewage. Philadelphia spent summers smothered in a relentless blanket of smog.

In the decades since the first Earth Day, many of these blatant problems have been addressed. Spurred on by grassroots movements, government responses such as the Clean Water Act showed remarkable success in addressing the more egregious sources of pollution.

trash in stream

It is tempting to look at the last 50 years and congratulate ourselves for the environmental successes. Unfortunately, we now face urgent and complex challenges that were scarcely dreamed of in 1970, of which, the coronavirus is only one of several that threaten our way of life.

Put simply, this is not our parents’ ecosystem.

Today’s air pollutants of greatest concern are not the ingredients of smog (though they are still a problem), but trace gases including carbon dioxide and methane that are the ingredients of climate change. The witch’s brew in today’s Delaware River is less from industry than from stormwater runoff from city streets and farm fields.

Young adults carry bags of trash from Frankford Creek

These are the environmental impacts of millions of people and millions of behaviors shaped by political, social and economic drivers. Human systems, in all their complexity, are now intimately linked to the natural systems that make life possible. Just as we have learned to make changes to slow the spread of COVID-19, we must also learn to work on a global level to heal what humanity is doing to our planet. 

There is even growing evidence that by dividing the world into “human vs. natural” we are misunderstanding the problems we face. Some people suggest because cumulative human actions are pushing the environment to its limit, we must go beyond the actions of individuals and focus on broader socio-ecological issues.

For example, we now know different groups of people are affected differently by environmental problems. Low-income communities, people of color, and other minorities suffer disproportionately from extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, just as we see skewed death rates from COVID-19.  

And there are also more subtle effects of inequity. For example, in Philadelphia some low-income communities are 5 to 10 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods because of a lack of trees to absorb the heat. We are finally starting to see that environmental activists, as well as scientists, can no longer ignore social justice and equity as though they were separate from ecological systems.

In recent years, a raw form of political polarization has come to drive the environmental dialogue. Many people forget that a Republican president signed the Clean Water Act and formed the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, with a political system that seems incapable of compromise, the provisions of that same Clean Water Act are being rolled back, with a high level of uncertainty as to what that will mean.

So how do we find solutions?

One way is to rethink how we produce and use knowledge. Research — and sharing and applying that research — is crucial to solving problems. At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, we are building on our decades of research to better understand and manage the environment.

We are taking a more public role, including our participation last year in the March for Science and the Global Climate Strike, and all of this year in our Small Actions Spark Big Changes campaign on our website.. We continue to work with our Drexel partners and colleagues around the region to bring together knowledge and practice to solve environmental problems.

This is not our parents’ Academy.


By Roland Wall, Director of the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research


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