Earth Day 2020: a Vision for the Next 50 Years

Basin and Range National Monument. Photo: Bob Wick.

Fifty years ago this week, a group of visionaries created an event to honor, celebrate and protect the earth. The original founders of Earth Day were inspired by an understanding that Earth and its life support systems were increasingly vulnerable. They also understood a profound and simple truth—if the Earth suffers, then humanity suffers too.

Today, thanks to the catalyzing effect of that original Earth Day vision—as well as a deep and wide progressive social and political movement—a whole suite of environmental safety nets now exist to protect the natural world, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Though these safety nets have been weakened, especially in the last few years, they provide a bulwark that, if strengthened and renewed by political leaders, can continue to help us heal and restore our climate, lands, waters, and wildlife.

Our interdependence, on one another and the health of the planet and its biotic systems, is increasingly apparent and resonant with a broader swath of humanity in the time of COVID-19. This Earth Day is a time to reject dualities that seek to deny our interdependence and embrace our shared destiny—planet and people have one health. From this stems our belief that the rights of nature and the rights of people are inextricably intertwined.

As we commemorate this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we do so with a somber reckoning that we have not heeded planetary health warnings early or well enough. Therefore these times require ever more bold actions to realign our commitment to Earth and its natural systems and our mutual well-being. We also must deepen our commitment to greater equity and inclusion in our human communities to ensure that people are treated with compassion and afforded the dignity that all people deserve.

If Earth and its natural systems are to thrive in the next 50 years, we need a deep recommitment to the bold vision that inspired the first Earth Day. It is a time for action. It is time to reweave the threads of the environmental, public health, and economic safety nets, which ensure that the public welfare and the common good are each protected.

Our vision is grounded in the belief that the ultimate fate of our economy and our ecology are inextricably linked. We must create new, more democratic and resilient energy systems that not only solve the climate crisis, but also put people back to work. It is also time to create a re-envisioned Civilian Conservation Corps, one that serves our time and needs, one that is inclusive. We can put people of all ages, but mostly young people, to work on the task of healing the land, water, and wildlife. It’s a job that can bring together diverse peoples and heal our division, heal ourselves while working to heal damaged ecosystems.

WildEarth Guardians’ vision this Earth Day is one that calls on leadership at all levels of society. We need leaders from all political spectrums to shoulder the responsibility of creating and embrace the vision of a new, more nurturant social contract with citizens. We can and must marshal and align all the necessary resources to put this new vision into action.

We believe that systemic problems, such as the nature and climate crises, require bold, systemic solutions that only national and global leaders can drive. In particular, we believe that both the U.S. Interior Department and the Agricultural Department must play leadership roles in shifting our relationship to Earth from one that is exploitative and extractive, to one that is restorative and regenerative.

There has never been a better time to chart a new course towards a restorative and regenerative future.

As was the case in the past, in order to make this vision a reality we need to reach millions of people—guardians—who demand bolder leadership from themselves, their communities and the leaders we all elect.

The beauty, resiliency, and dynamism of Earth, our home, can still inspire a sense of awe and wonder in each of us. If we re-commit, with an even greater sense of urgency to the founding vision of Earth Day, we can ensure that future generations will experience the beauty too.


John Horning is the executive director of WildEarth Guardians, which protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.