Online activism keeps Earth Day alive during the pandemic

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — On April 22, 1970, Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes led the first Earth Day event to raise public consciousness and support for environmental protection, and 20 million people participated throughout the United States. 

As it marks its 50th anniversary this week, Earth Day is celebrated in over 190 countries. While the event is traditionally commemorated by civic engagement, organized around river and coastal clean-up, trash removal and tree-planting activities, coronavirus is pushing it online this year.

The theme of Earth Day 2020 is climate action, but, as an impassioned Hayes wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed, years of planning have been upended. 

 “COVID-19, the ultimate Black Swan, surged out of China and engulfed the world. All our marches, rallies and protests; our teach-ins, lectures and concerts — everywhere — were made illegal,” he wrote.

Here in Woods Hole, a seat of globally recognized science institutions, many of whom focus on environmental health, the waterfront is normally busy with the activities of research scientists, and the coming and goings of research vessels from institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Sea Education Association (SEA). Today, Woods Hole is closed to nonessential work

“Even in the midst of this pandemic, it is important to mark this milestone 50th Earth Day,” said WHRC Chief Communications Officer Heather Goldstone. “While climate action and Earth Day events look different right now, we will still be coming together — virtually — to celebrate successes and look to the future.”

In Waterfront Park, the statue of Rachel Carson, ecologist, author and pioneer environmental activist looks out onto a still and silent waterfront. As in other communities worldwide, many in this community will be commemorating Earth Day through digital forums. 


At GroundTruth’s Woods Hole Bureau, members of our team have been working with The Woods Hole Research Center, a leader in the study of climate change impacts, and The Woods Hole Film Festival Film and Science Initiative, telling the stories of the next generation of climate activists and climate scientists.

Our Future, Our Fight – Trailer [2020] from Principle Pictures on Vimeo.

On Wednesday at noon Eastern Time, The Woods Hole Research Center’s Goldstone will host the live discussion, “Climate Action: Bridging Science and Activism” with Youth Activist Jonah Gottlieb and Woods Hole Research Center’s Associate Scientist, Marcia Macedo. 

Macedo studies how the Amazon’s aquatic ecosystems are changing in response to deforestation, fire, and climate change. Gottlieb, inspired to action by wildfires in his Northern California community,  is the co-founder and executive director of the National Children’s Campaign, and climate change activist with This is Zero Hour and Schools for Climate Action. 

“This moment during COVID-19 isn’t slowing us down,” Gottlieb said. “Our work is actually more expansive than ever and this has been an opportunity for even more young people and our allies to get involved. What’s really exciting is that groups are more willing to collaborate. We’re breaking down silos right now as people realize how serious this is and how important it is to work together. Isolation, it turns out, is good for collaboration.” 

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Editor’s note: Over the last five years, GroundTruth reporting fellows have covered climate change and its impact on communities globally and locally from the COP21 Paris Agreement to climate and conflict in Somalia, sea level rise in the Marshall Islands and climate change on Cape Cod. And our work continues. In December 2019, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) published a study advising that environmental pollution kills 8.3 million people annually. During the pandemic, we’ve seen immediate reduction in pollution and have had a glimpse at the global response to the crisis. Over the next several months, as people all over the world resume activities, we have the opportunity to focus on climate action and solutions. From the ground up.