Earth Day: A time to pause, engage and take action

Sonoma County campus communities say Earth Day still has a place 53 years after the first observance.|

Scores of people crowded into Climate Action Night at Santa Rosa Junior College, where students from around Sonoma County on Thursday extolled the virtues of different climate legislation and planet-friendly initiatives, urging those who listened to get involved.

In each case, they had policymakers’ contact information or petition sites available so participants could easily lend their voices to efforts they supported.

If not the classic teach-in of the Vietnam War era — the kind of daylong lecture series held on college campuses on the very first Earth Day in 1970 — Thursday’s event captured some of their spirit: A gathering of teachers, students and others to raise awareness about threats to the planet and build momentum for change.

In a world of nonstop news and messaging about the dire environmental state of the globe, it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone still unaware of the degradation of our air, water, landscape and future prospects.

Every day brings another urgent warning of our need to act now.

And yet Earth Day, and even Earth Week and Earth Month, as some would have it, remains a highly popular observance — an opportunity to pause and consider the beauty and fragility of the planet, to take stock of progress made, to boost environmental consciousness among those who may not live it day-to-day, and to engage those who do more deeply in effective action.

Organizations around the globe have hosted events to inform and mobilize the public to live more sustainably, launch campaigns or frame announcements this week, including dozens locally, many taking place this weekend.

Rather than lose relevance amid the perpetual stream of environment-related headlines and pronouncements, many in local college campus communities say Earth Day may be more important than ever half a century after its first observance, especially for young adults inheriting the burdens of a planet mined and manipulated for the benefit of earlier generations.

“There is a lot of hopelessness,” said Sonoma State University environmental studies major Casey Hemphill, who drew chalk flowers in front of the student union during an Earth Day event there Thursday afternoon. “It can be kind of overwhelming growing up.”

But Earth Day, said Hemphill, 19, “is just like a celebration of the earth, to take time to look around and see how beautiful what we have is,” and then to say “these are the problems that exist; these are solutions.”

Ezequiel Romaniz, a Sonoma State sociology student who took part in Climate Action Night at the junior college, similarly identified Earth Day as the “one day to take it all in” and get in position to help.

“Today is a perfect example, to see what action you can take practically,” Romaniz said during the fifth-annual event, held at Bertolini Student Center.

Eric Sanford, professor of ecology and evolution at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab, said observing Earth Day in and surrounded by nature is one way to fight the fatigue of incessant climate alarm.

“We hear about it so much in the news that it’s easy for people to tune it out, because it’s hard to think about and it’s challenging,” Sanford said. “It’s hard to live in that space where environmental news is kind of gloomy. It’s easy for people to almost filter that out as kind of background, so having something like Earth Day makes it easy for people to kind of focus on the issue.”

Jeff Baldwin, an environmental geography professor at Sonoma State, said students are plenty aware of the poor outlook for the planet but may not be a familiar with the many paths to be a better future. Earth Day can be an occasion for them to think beyond the constant buzz and learn how to plug into solutions.

It’s a different world from the one in which the concept of Earth Day was first hatched, a time of cultural revolution and upheaval, and still-nascent awareness of the environmental ills born of industrialization, unfettered population growth, unconsidered resource extraction and ecological abuses.

Then-Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, already known in his home state for his dedication to conservation of natural resources as a state lawmaker and, later, governor, conceived the idea of a nationwide day of teach-ins on the problems of pollution and environmental threats.

Earth Day, first celebrated April 22, 1970, drew an estimated 20 million people — about 10% of what was then the U.S. population — into the streets and public squares and campus centers of America, demonstrating public support for environmental reform.

It heralded a decade of political action that included passage of the landmark federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Zeke Baker, an environmental sociologist at Sonoma State and mentor for several student presenter teams at Climate Action Night, said it’s important to note that Earth Day was created as a political protest and demonstration intended to mobilize communities and incite collective action.

Where the central focus now is on climate change and resilience, energy extraction and resource exploitation, the goal must still be “political engagement and wide collective effect,” particularly given the United States’ disproportionate contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

"That’s where I do get a little bit cynical,“ Baker said, ”when there are events that are bringing attention to something that is intended to be sustainable … but it isn’t attached to a kind of collective political agenda. It’s not connected to an idea or a set of commitments or goals or outcomes. And I think, putting my cards on the table, that’s what Earth Day should be.“

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of and Third Act, both networks for local climate activism, noted that the first Earth Day was radically political, often raucous, and very much the kind of street activism that is becoming prominent again.

“The dangers of it are that it suggests you devote one day a year to it,” McKibben said.

That’s Santa Rosa Junior College student Yasmin Esquivel’s concern.

“I personally think we need more than Earth Day,” especially given how slow Americans are to respond to the need for change, said Esquivel, 22.

Her friend Mainor Barrios said there are ways to can be used to catalyze action, but for some “it just gives people validation for feeling like they’re doing something.”

Santa Rosa Junior College earth sciences instructor Katie Gerber said many of her students are impatient with earlier generations’ inaction, and angry about the problems they’re inheriting.

“I think Earth Day has shifted a bit,” Gerber said.

“I think students want to see action. They don’t just want talk. They really want to see more action being taken — actual steps being taken to address climate, but also air pollution, water pollution and waste.They’re looking for ways to get involved.”

Santa Rosa Junior College biology instructor Abigail Zoger, co-chair of Climate Action Night, added: “There’s a large and present drumbeat of the need for action all the time, because there is a need for action. Is setting aside a week or a day a need anymore? I don’t have the answer.

But “there is a sense that this is an opportunity to catch people’s attention …” Zoger said.

“My goal is to help people figure out how to take action, and it has to happen all the time, every day all year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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