April 22 marks 50 years of celebrating Earth Day, an annual holiday dedicated to the protection and restoration of the planet’s natural environment. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Earth Day celebrations are moving to a digital format for the very first time.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, many community events have been postponed or canceled, but that does not mean nature enthusiasts are giving up. Coordinators at The Washington, D.C. based Earth Day Network are pushing for a digital landscape with online lesson plans, interactive learning activities, live chats with scientists and hands-on outdoor projects that people can do at home.
“It will be the largest Digital Earth Day because it’s the first in that sense,” Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers told Forbes last month. “But I do think the response we have is going to be big.”
Educational websites like National Geographic and BrainPOP have already implemented some of these tools, while others are taking the ideas a step further. Earth Day Network has teamed up with the Wilson Center and the U.S. Department of State to create a smartphone app called Earth Challenge 2020 that allows users to capture environmental data for scientists to use to help protect nature.
The app offers information about issues in a user’s area like air quality, insect populations and plastic pollution. Those who want a more hands-on experience can share and compare their observations with the community, and the app will tailor suggestions for how users can improve their local environment based on that data.
Additionally, the network has started a 22-day social media campaign called Earth Day Daily Challenge. Every day a new challenge is posted to Earth Day Network’s social media pages. Those interested in participating can get involved by posting pictures completing the daily challenges with the hashtags #EarthDay2020 and #EARTHRISE. Thousands of social media users have already started posting, often with photos of gardens planted in recycled containers like yogurt tubs or plastic wading pools.
Actors and film companies are also doing their part to raise awareness. Director Susan Kucera and actor Jeff Bridges created a documentary called “Living in the Future’s Past,” which focuses on the challenges facing the planet and how humans are interconnected.
More recently, popular children’s networks like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have scheduled nature-themed programming during Earth Week which includes a brand-new National Geographic special titled “Born Wild: The Next Generation.” There is also a series of Disneynature films meant to engage and educate theatrical audiences about largely inaccessible parts of the world. BBC America is also joining in with a marathon of the original “Planet Earth” series followed by “Blue Planet II.”
All of this is a far cry from Earth Day’s origins in 1970. Former Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson mobilized his concern for the environment by organizing a series of “teach-ins” on college campuses. To maximize student participation in the event, the date of April 22 was picked because it fell in between spring break and final exams.
20 million Americans participated in that first Earth Day, and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws followed. Over the last five decades, this project has exploded into a global phenomenon. Every year over one billion people in more than 190 countries come together to make the world a more habitable place. These groups have gotten involved by marching, signing petitions, cleaning up roadsides and public parks, planting trees and more.
50 years later, Americans are staying home on Earth Day and still finding ways to mobilize environmental protection efforts. Social distancing might make it a challenge to organize community activities, but there are plenty of ways to make a difference right at home. Visit earthday.org for a more comprehensive list of Earth Day activities, as well as a digital Earth Day event map for your area.