April 19, 2020

Earth Day - It's Still On: Suzanne Gallagher rsm

The fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020 will always be associated with the Coronavirus Crisis. Despite major cancellations throughout the world, Earth Day is still on. This pandemic, a global tragedy, has multiple causes most of which are still speculative and the effects of which will not be understood for years, but the relatedness of Earth Day and crisis is not new. The first Earth Day in 1970 was developed as a response to environmental crises. In the United States Senator Gaylord Nelson (Democrat, Wisconsin) was troubled that environmental issues were not a general focus or on the policy agenda for the US. He was concerned at the lack of unified action of the country even as people were fighting for decades individually against oil spills, factory pollution of raw sewage, pesticides, loss of wilderness and wildlife and the like. 

The first Earth Day in 1970 activated 20 million Americans, many of whom were college students. The hope was to draw on the energy of youth who were demonstrating against the US participation of the in war in Viet Nam and attracted by the spiritual vitality of the Civil Rights movement protesting the de facto and de jure racism which was woven into the fabric of the culture. One of the major rally venues was Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, PA where I lived during this time. I was teaching third graders in a middle-class town in the suburbs. I don’t remember the day itself, but I do remember the practice of “teach-ins” that were a central aspect of the day, and which remained a common instructional strategy. The goal of the day was to send the alarm; the planet is in danger. The goal seemed to be met as the number of people involved, 20 million or 10% of the population of the US at that time, took to the streets. The day produced major effects, for example the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Nixon (Republican) and bipartisan legislation to insure clean air and clean water for all citizens. Even as legislation was passed, pushback came from multiple parties for whom regulation was seen as an infringement on their interests, a similar force is obvious today. However, legislation did push the country toward progress. I have a vivid memory of my dad, who was in the cement industry, explaining to his twenty something daughter how to spot a clean burning smokestack and a dirty burning smokestack. Many of us have similar remembrances of how regulations changed our lives. This day had become a movement.

Twenty years later the formal celebration of Earth Day went global with 200 million people formally participating in 141 countries. Marking the day continued to grow and on Earth Day 2016 the Paris Agreement was signed. Nearly every nation on earth was set to address climate change and its negative effects.– for now.

Historically, the call to action brought push back by multiple forces including climate change deniers and well-funded oil lobbyists. But another force, a lack interest, was also obvious. As Pope Francis states in Laudato Sí

The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. (#14)

The answer to this question for Pope Francis is the development of a deeper consciousness and belief in what he calls “Integral ecology”; knowing that we are all one, that an integral relationship exists between “nature and the society which lives in it.” We are, or more correctly, I am beginning to appreciate that this common home of ours can’t be regarded as something apart from me, as Francis says “like a setting in which I live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (Laudato Sí #139). Chapter four is clear:

It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (# 139)

In 1970 would this understanding of integral ecology, the singleness of theenvironment and of struggles against war and recognition and dismantling systemic racism have made the first Earth Day more central to the life of the people? If you are reading this, you can list your focus points of how the degradation of the environment and environmental racism impacts the lives of our brothers and sisters in ways that might be shocking for some of us to imagine: the suffering and the dignity of people who are refugees, indigenous, homeless, hungry, without access to health care, water, a home, food. And, here we are as humans who claim the mantel of mercy, impelled to advocate and be in solidarity in whatever manner we are able. Most of us recognize that human action has caused climate change. That our mistreatment of our Common Home has allowed all kinds of environmental injustice to occur including the Coronavirus to become a pandemic.

So, what are we to do on this 50th Anniversary of Earth Day marked with the “stay home” mandate associated with the current pandemic. The theme for this year’s recognition is “climate action.” The aim was, and remains, to mobilize billions of us global citizens. This year the impetus is clear – it’s a question of survival. We are unable to take to the streets, but we, citizens of the world, will employ as many of means that we have at our disposal (pen, phones, computers) eager to engage our minds and hearts and work; because as Francis assures us, God’s “love constantly impels us to find new ways forward” (Laudato Si’ #245).

Messages to: Suzanne Gallagher rsm

Suzanne entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. Most of her ministry was in education as a classroom teacher, elementary school administrator, and an associate professor at Gwynedd-Mercy College (now University). She currently is ministering in the Justice Office of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in the Mid-Atlantic area. 

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