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Mother Earth Day: Hope and opportunity?

April 21st, 2020 By Erena Williamson

Mother Earth Day on April 22 gives us special pause for thought this year. Not only because it marks the Day's 50th anniversary but because around the world, the environment is responding to the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
— Native American proverb

Young woman holding seedling in her hands
Image by Nikola Jovanovic. Unsplash. License to use.

What is Mother Earth Day?

Mother Earth, in her many guises, is part of the narratives of cultures around the world, for example, the Greek goddess Gaea, Coatlīcu revered by the Aztecs, and Papatūānuku, of profound importance to Māori. Mother Earth can be seen to embody fertility and to nourish and protect the natural world.

The origins of this Day are the first environmental protests against air pollution in America in the 1970s, a time when people around the world had growing concerns about the negative impacts of cars and industry.

In 2009, the United Nations passed a resolution to designate April 22 as International Mother Earth Day. Throughout subsequent decades, more than 140 countries have joined the initiative, working on varied environmental issues.

Research shows that collectively humans are better off today than they were when the first Mother Earth Day was held. But can we say the same for our planet? Has the wellbeing of people improved at the expense of our environment? It's fair to say there have been positive changes as well as setbacks.

Focus for 2020

The focus for this year's Mother Earth Day is climate action. Taking effect in 2016, countries in the United Nations adopted the Paris Agreement, setting goals and making a commitment to address climate change around the world through a range of initiatives.

Mother Earth Day this year also coincides with the UN's super year for nature and biodiversity. Measuring biodiversity involves collecting data on the variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms in Earth's various ecosystems. Ecosystems that are biologically diverse have a huge variety of species from all three categories existing together.

In healthy ecosystems, diversity increases. In every part of the world, however, biodiversity is declining, and in some places, this is occurring at a rate that should alarm us all.

The World Economic Forum believes that climate change and the resulting decrease in biodiversity is adversely affecting our ability to cope with pandemics.

An amazing upside in difficult times

However, remarkable things do happen. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Mother Earth seems to be heaving a huge sigh of relief. Scientists and casual observers have noticed nature responding in positive ways to the dramatic changes in human behaviour occurring around the world.

Most significantly, there are clear skies where a short time ago there was toxic smog. The significance of the improvement in air quality alone can not be underestimated. Ironically, for humans, current research by scientists at Harvard is examining the possibility that breathing toxic air over time has increased the chances of fatality from COVID-19.

So what are we doing differently?

Our contribution to air toxicity and greenhouse gases has fallen with the reduction in use of fossil fuels during COVID-19 restrictions. Planes are no longer spewing nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere as international travel has virtually disappeared. Manufacturing has reduced, resulting in fewer pollutants making their way into the air, and power demand is in decline. There has also been a significant reduction in the number of cars on roads worldwide.

It isn't all good news for the environment

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is having some negative effects on the environment as well. PPE (personal protective equipment) so vital in protecting front-line health workers is single-use plastic. People venturing outside to gather supplies are also making use of masks and gloves. Disposal of these items is creating problems.

Fruit and vegetable growers and meat producers are facing an increase in food waste as independent grocers and butchers are not operating. Gas caused by food waste worldwide amounts to approximately 11% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustaining the positive change

Together, the countries involved in the work of the UN have adopted 17 sustainable development goals. Governments and industry have a huge part to play in achieving these goals, but there are, of course, a myriad of things we can all do in our everyday lives that can have an impact.

The UN have put together actions that citizens can take to lessen their impact on the environment 'from your couch', 'at home', 'outside your house', and 'at work'.

Here's a range of suggested actions from the Earth Day organisation.

The National Library also has a range of useful resources around environmental conservation and sustainability. Topic Explorer includes the following sets:

In Many Questions, you will find:

Hope and opportunity

The Smithsonian champions optimism for environmental sustainability and change through the annual Earth Optimism Summit.

Mother Earth Day creates an opportunity for us to reflect and shine a spotlight on the undeniable truth that our way of living has a huge impact on our planet, but that we can also swiftly reverse some of that impact.

Perhaps at the core, the decision is whether we want to live 'with' our planet or 'on' it. The evidence would suggest this is the time to examine our intentions closely.

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