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The Day After Earth Day


2020 has been a long four months. One could be forgiven for letting usual observances and events pass without fanfare. Yet, amongst all this chaos, Earth Day 2020 has arrived. But there will be no coordinated marches or beach cleans this year. Worldwide, environmentalists and others will observe the day in lockdown conditions. Earth Day 2020, although in its 50th year, feels somewhat muted.

Despite being a droplet in the lifespan of the Earth, a lot has changed in the 50 years since the first Earth Day. On April 22nd 1970 the global carbon dioxide levels were around 325 parts per million. Nowadays, levels are nearly 100ppm higher, sitting at 416ppm recently. Within this period, not only have we ascertained the real scope of our climate crisis, but we find ourselves facing its increasingly severe consequences. A lot of time has been wasted.

These long 50 years have not been hopeless. The emergence of global climate justice networks, within and outside bodies like the UN, represents a significant form of international cooperation. Sustainable technologies and different ways of organising society have been implemented and improved upon each year. It remains possible for the world to tackle and prevent climate breakdown’s worse effects. Furthermore, we can abolish the colonial, extractive, and uneven relationships that are part of its cause.

It's fair to say that Earth Day has been subject to co-option in its half-century. We see the language and practices of environmentalism deprived of their radicalism and adopted as a mask. Many businesses and governments treat Earth Day as the time to announce greenwashing policies or perform faux concern. Every other day in the year sees the business as usual we have seen emerge since the 1970s: The collapsing of social safety nets, the commodification of life, and the destruction this inflicts to the environment.

This week also marks the anniversary of one of the largest environmental crimes of the century; the Deepwater Horizon Spill. The initial explosion killed 11 rig workers, and millions of barrels worth of oil spilled out into the surrounding ecosystems. The Gulf Coast was poisoned with crude oil, the ecological and social effects of which still being felt today. For those interested, the Bridge the Gulf Project provides a platform for Gulf communities to confront this legacy. Without a doubt, the scars of this event are still felt.

The immediate violence of the Deepwater Horizon explosion was felt by the injured and dying workers on the rig itself. This reflects a truth which goes back across nearly all energy forms; it is workers who are subject to some of the most severe health effects, risks, and exploitation by energy systems. The parallels with COVID-19 are clear. It is exploitative work in the frontline which is most dangerous and most necessary for the function of society. Climate justice must demand an end to the exploitation of labour.

The current negative price of oil, and the expected collapse of fossil fuel companies has been welcomed by many environmentalists as the end of the fossil fuel industry. Such pronouncements were common in the aftermath of the Deepwater poisoning too. But the opposite came true. Today we're facing more pernicious attempts to access fossil fuels through deeper drilling while regulations are weakened. We should not be quick to assume that polluters under private or state volition will now decarbonise. Instead polluters may consolidate and recover as Adam Hanieh has effectively argued. We will likely see government support for the larger fossil companies given their importance to current economic systems. They will the scoop up and absorb smaller fossil companies who go bust. Polluters will not disappear until we make them.

One final observation. There is a reason that the Deepwater poisoning stands out in the environmental thought of many, beyond its size. It happened in the Global North. In the decades before and since, environmental violence has been perpetrated against many in the Global South, through both large scale disasters, as well as more nebulous slow violence. Yet this is rarely discussed in the public sphere and imaginary. You only need to look at the number of people who have died defending their environment to see the disproportionate amount of working class, Indigenous, and Global South victims of polluting industries. Environmental violence is not only uneven; this uneveness is erased by those privileged within the current system. This cannot stand.

Earth Day was originally set up in response to the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969. This poisoning saw another part of the US coastline decimated by a rig breakdown. It remains one of the largest disasters of its kind, and was a central concern for countercultural movements of the era. Looking at these disasters, it seems society is stuck on loop. These oil spills should not be seen as exceptions to the normal, but as more spectacular forms of the violence inherent in the current system. Those who co-opt Earth Day today wish to evade their responsibility for our crises, and avoid the action necessary for a more just world.

Despite its co-option, we should remember the radicalism inherent in the early Earth Day. Like many in 1970, we can recognise the need to demand a new world, a non-extractive and socially just world. We must do so without compromise, and without pause. Time is short. Today is Earth Day, but what matters is how we act tomorrow.


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