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The Elkington Report

Step up for Earth Day 2020

Why I'm backing Earth Day again this year, and why you should, too.

"Step UpOr Get Out Of The Way!" was the provocative strapline at our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum, held in the heart of London’s financial district Jan. 10. And if, as I expect, 2020 launches a positively "Exponential Decade," business leaders and the financial markets will have little option but to step up in radically new ways.

So must we all, in our multiple roles of citizens, voters, consumers, investors, parents, teachers, students and so on. That’s why the activities of Greta Thunberg and the rising generation of climate activists are so inspiring. And it is also why I am once again backing Earth Day this year, April 22. Let me explain why, if you haven’t already, you should do so, too.

First, each year Earth Day reaches over a billion people in more than 190 countries. This year, it could reach significantly more. Already, though, that number speaks to an unbelievable level of reach and impact. Yes, we can debate what "reaching" means, but what else in our lives has anything like that level of impact?

I was at university — and hugely inspired — when Earth Day 1970 mobilized millions of Americans. Some 20 million people, or 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time, protested environmental abuses and ignorance. President Richard Nixon, no fan of environmentalism, was forced to take note — and take action. As a result, that first Earth Day led to the passage of landmark laws in the United States, including the Clean Air, Clear Water and Endangered Species Acts.

The impulse of Earth Day 1970 also triggered the establishment two years later of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm — and a decade-long process of rolling out a growing number of global environmental treaties, conventions and agreements that have since underpinned the world’s response to growing sustainability challenges.

The most exciting aspect of Earth Day 2020 is its call for a new era of citizen science.
My first direct contact with the Earth Day team came in 1990, the year when the movement went truly global. Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day, asked me whether I would join the international board that year, which I was delighted to do. Several of us had founded SustainAbility three years earlier, among other things launching the immensely successful green consumer movement, so it was wonderful to be part of something that was even bigger, and by several orders of magnitude.

Earth Day 1990 mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries. It boosted recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Sen. Gaylord Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, for his role as Earth Day founder. Today, Earth Day is considered to be the world’s largest civic event.

Now we are preparing to launch my 20th book, "Green Swans," in April. And it is blindingly clear to us that the Earth Day movement, 50 years old this year, has been one of the most striking examples to date of a "Green Swan." That is, a "positive exponential" in a world increasingly plagued by the sort of "negative exponentials," or wicked problems, signaled by the climate and environmental emergencies. Indeed, we plan to present Denis Hayes with the third Green Swan Award this year, in honor of his exponential exploits over the past half-century.

For me, though, the most exciting aspect of Earth Day 2020 is its call for a new era of citizen science, with people around the world coming together to find answers to six questions:

  • What is the extent of plastic pollution?
  • How does air quality vary locally?
  • How are insect populations changing?
  • What’s in my drinking water?
  • Is my food supply sustainable?
  • What are the local impacts of climate change?

A new mobile app will be released in time for Earth Day, designed to crowdsource the collection and integration of a billion points of data during April, as part of Earth Challenge 2020.

Asked to explain why citizen science is so central this year, Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers replied: "There are hundreds of examples where citizen science has driven many of the environmental laws, policies and regulations in this country. The immediate example is Flint, Michigan, where a young mother was determined to find answers about what was sickening her children. She went out and tested her own water and then found scientists to test the water. All the while, the state and local governments were ignoring a problem that caused a huge amount of physical and emotional problems for the community."

So which of the six priority areas does Rogers prioritize? "Everywhere I go," she said, "people are talking about plastics and pollinators. People are starting to understand the scope of plastic pollution, and they’re worried about their food. We’re going to promote these two questions the most. For plastics, we’re also organizing the Great Global Cleanup. We expect to have 100 million people out in their communities, picking up trash. We already have commitments from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and the Philippines. As people are out cleaning up, we’ll ask them to classify a subset of the pollution they pick up and take photos of insects that they see. It’s a great way to galvanize and cross-pollinate, so to speak, these two projects."

As a chief pollinator myself, I clearly approve wholeheartedly of any and all efforts designed to address the plight of the planet’s pollinators, sometimes labeled "Insectageddon."

At a time when pretty much all science is under attack by populist leaders and others, it is immensely heartening to see science at the core of the Earth Day 2020 agenda.
And at a time when pretty much all science is under attack by populist leaders and others, it is immensely heartening to see science at the core of the 2020 agenda. Asked why, Rogers said: "Science really created the first Earth Day, because it came at a time when scientists started to understand the impacts 150 years of industrial development were having on our planet. Scientists were sounding the alarm about everything from DDT to air pollution and the toxic dumping of industrial waste. The first Earth Day took place during a time of great activism with the civil rights movement and antiwar movement. Social justice plays a role because, at the time, there weren’t laws like the Clean Water Act anywhere in the world."

Earth Day 2020 will build on foundations already laid in building the global appetite for sound, timely science. Rogers recalled: "In 2018, the March for Science took place on Earth Day. That global rally in more than 600 cities emphasized how science upholds the common good and called for evidence-based policy decisions."

History in many ways is turning full circle with young people, both in the United States and internationally, pledging to strike for three days from Earth Day 2020 — in part because the very laws inspired by that first Earth Day are under threat of dismantlement by the current president. If you haven’t done so already, please sign up to the wider global movement here. And if you are also organizing an event, well done — and please register it here.

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