Earth Day: 50 Years On

Yesterday was the 50th Earth Day, and I spent my time thinking about the outdoors. Although we haven’t seen greenery for what feels like an age, the blue sky reminds me of long beautiful days, spent out in the fresh air.


Fresh air is an interesting concept. With the current pollution levels, how much of the air we breathe can be considered ‘fresh’? Living in the centre of Cardiff, probably not a whole lot. Out in the middle of the Fens, perhaps it is a little better. The centre of the Canadian Rockies - that’s more like it. So, stuck in social-isolation and cooped up inside, our cravings for the ‘fresh air’ may finally be answered, as we watch enthralled as pollution levels decrease across the globe.


For those who ‘don’t believe’ in global warming, air pollution and ocean clean-ups, there has never been more evidence of the huge impact that the human race has on this planet. The oil price is in tatters while the earth stands still and beautiful pictures of the crystal clear Venetian canals have gone viral. Shoals of fish have returned, and a jellyfish even spotted swimming through the centre of the city, as the sediment normally churned up by the vast amounts of traffic) settles. Venetians have seen this as nature ‘taking the city back’, after struggling with tourist numbers for decades, with up to 30 million visitors a year. This number, within just 414 km2 (compared to London’s 1,5722) is overwhelming, not just for its residents, but for the very fragile ecosystem that the city is built upon.


Protests have been common in Venice over the last few years, both by school children for Greta Thunberg’s global movement, and by other activist groups. Most notable was 2016’s ‘No Grandi Navi’ (No Cruise Ships), which saw residents take to their boats and block the passage of six vessels. So, to see Venice returned to its glory has both its residents, and the world, in awe. We can no longer pretend that the damage being done to Venice, and to countless other cities across the world, is not an urgent problem.


India has seen huge drops in air pollution across its main cities. Nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 15% since the lockdown of the country, and some are seeing the Himalayas from their towns for the first time. Lions are lounging around on the roads of South Africa with the lack of traffic and 8/10 flights have been cancelled globally. However, all of these unexpected cuts on emissions are still fewer than experts have advised we make every year in order to save the planet. They also don’t fix the fact that the catastrophic Australian bushfires produced more CO2 than the country contributes to the atmosphere in a year, or that the start of 2020 has been the second warmest ever.


So while a huge step in the right direction, we must also be aware that self-isolation will not go on forever. While we will rejoice at being in nature again, all the progress the earth has made has the potential to be entirely reversed, or made worse in people’s reactions to being ‘free again’. Huge parties, an increase in usual travel, and the littering that comes with all of this, has the potential to set us back further. It’s also always worth remembering that the clear waters and cleaner air have come at a huge cost to human life, as the side effects of a catastrophic human pandemic. This should serve as a reminder that we are not invincible, and that we are at nature’s mercy. Should this not, in fact, be the most stark reminder to treat nature better?


The only chance we have of sustaining the progress made while we have been removed from the equation, is to use the time we are given to commit to changing our ‘norm’. Perhaps it means swapping in a flight for a road trip, or a fun train journey across Europe. We may see tourism caps become more and more common, especially considering Europe receives an unbelievable 713 million international visitors every year. The same must be done for individual cities such as Kyoto in Japan, which hosts 50 million visitors annually, while also prioritizing caps for our natural wonders, as I described in my post on Lake Louise. It also means travelling respectfully, just as the #leavenotrace movement advocates - with tips on how to enjoy the world without contributing to the mess. For others, it will mean seriously reducing their plastic waste, or adopting a meat-free or less-meat diet. There are countless articles available online to help you reduce your footprint. Why not take the WWF footprint calculator test and use it as a way to identify the areas you can improve?


As Venice has shown us, we will have to make big changes to tourism post COVID-19. We can’t wait for this change to come from our governments - tourism contributes €2 billion to the Venetian economy every year. It must therefore come from the people, who actively work to reduce their footprint, use their power to support brands which make moves to become sustainable, and travel carefully and respectfully, taking public transport where they can and being mindful of the environment with their actions. We must lobby the oil magnates, who previously thought they were indestructible, and are now paying people to take oil off their hands. The secrets out - we now know that they need us, more than we need them. But overall, we need to look around, and take in the planet and its wildlife, to finally give it the respect that it deserves.


Illustrations by: Gemma Anne Lawrence