We should still celebrate Earth Month in the time of COVID-19

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Margot Heron/The Occidental

As spring in Minnesota has slowly arrived, I have noticed more of my neighbors walking through the local parks and playing outside with their kids than I ever have before. With a statewide stay-at-home order that permits the modified use of outdoor spaces, it seems we are all clinging to every moment of sunshine, fresh air and new scenery we can get. Bleak grocery store shelves and public beach closures also seem to be reminding people that we cannot take Earth’s resources, and our access to them, for granted.

This year’s Earth Day April 22 will be especially notable, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the first celebration, when millions took to the streets to protest environmental degradation and pollution. Many of the planned events must now be adapted to meet social distancing guidelines. These tragic circumstances remind us how much we depend on the environment. It is important to celebrate Earth Month however we can right now and to maintain our commitment to the planet even in these trying times.

I am not trying to find a silver lining amid all the loss and grief in our world. The seriousness of this pandemic should not be downplayed. However, just as we must consider the ways this health crisis will disproportionately affect certain populations, we must also continue to pay attention to environmental degradation and injustices in our communities. The threat of climate change and widespread ecological destruction has not subsided even if our attention has — understandably — been focused elsewhere.

Many species and wildlife populations face extreme harm and the possibility of extinction, and the average global temperature continues to rise, bringing with it widespread risk and devastation to communities across the world. The past few weeks’ lapse in commuting, air travel and other common contributors to greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to reverse the impacts of centuries of environmental degradation and colonial exploitation. There may be occasional breaths of fresh air (literally, in some cases) for the planet while millions of people shelter in their homes, but addressing long-term climate change still requires significant restructuring of our energy, food and economic systems, as well as changing social attitudes.

The current pandemic has highlighted failures of the U.S.’s current system, including insufficient funding for public health preparedness and food assistance programs, as well as the vast inequalities that define the American experience for many. It may even contribute to further ecological devastation by reducing America’s firefighting capacity as wildfire season approaches in western states. We can learn valuable lessons from these failures and from our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Compliance with social distancing guidelines in many areas, for example, demonstrates that we are capable of taking sudden, dramatic, individual action for the welfare of our loved ones and community.

For me, living through this pandemic has made it even more obvious that my choices impact the social and ecological systems of which I am a part. My daily walks, runs and bike rides through the local wetlands and forests have provided much-needed solace and relief as I find myself sometimes feeling confined and detached. I think my neighbors’ recent increase in outdoor activity shows that they are feeling the same thing. Feeling bored and in need of connection to other life forms, I’ve made friends with the birds that frequent my backyard. There’s even one bald eagle I have seen almost every day this week.

As our routines are disrupted by stay-at-home orders, people are looking for ways to take care of themselves that also meet these guidelines. Scientific research and cultural knowledge affirm that connecting with nature is good for our bodies, minds and souls. This reliance on and fellowship with the environment, however, demands that we be good stewards of its resources. During a time where we can plainly see how interconnected we are with the world’s ecosystems, we should feel a heightened responsibility to protect an environment we rely on so heavily for our mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

It is important to honor the fact that everyone is coping in different ways right now and will have varied capacities to celebrate Earth Month. Do what you can — whether it is planting a kitchen garden, educating yourself about indigenous environmental activism, sending letters to your representatives, supporting local farmers, participating in online strikes or anything else. There are many opportunities to be aware of the gifts that our environment provides us and to be thoughtful about our impact on it every day.

In Minnesota, the first spring flowers are sprouting out of the thawing ground. Soon, they will open their petals and greet the sun, birds and trees. Even (or maybe especially) in this unprecedented season of crisis and collective anxiety, we should join them in their celebration — and keep fighting for them even after this season is over.

Kayla Heinze is a sophomore philosophy major. She can be reached at kheinze@oxy.edu.