In honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary this week, activists like Harlan Pruden originally planned to be outside. But the pandemic dropped all carefully planned marches, protests and executions around the big day on April 22, forcing the environmental movement online.
“We gather in this virtual space, but it is a place and a very important one,” Pruden said in a kick off live stream organized by the non-profit Earth Day Initiative on April 19. Pruden, an educator at the British Columbia Center for Disease Control and a member of the Cree Nation, had no intention of directing the opening of the live stream; he stepped in for a colleague who was hospitalized that morning with complications from COVID-19.
Pruden and others connected digital spaces to the physical planet and started the week of online events with a ‘land recognition’, a practice that pays tribute to indigenous nations and tribes and their traditional homeland. “If I didn’t do this country recognition, I would compare it to me when I walk into your house [and] “Don’t recognize that I’m in your house,” Pruden explained, speaking from the ancestral area of the Coast Salish peoples, which is now Vancouver. In this case, the country he recognized was not just for his current home, but for the entire world.
The fact that each of the approximately 500 people who tuned in all over the world was in their own home made the poignant moment a little surreal and emphasized the unusual circumstances of this new digital Earth Day.
Earth Day plans were revised just over a month ago, when cities and states began telling people to stay at home to limit the spread of the new corona virus. Since then, organizers have made an effort to make plans online. If they can rally as many people online as they planned to take to the streets on April 22, the achievement could mark a new form of digital resistance in the time of the coronavirus.
“People are doing something that has never been done before,” said Alec Connon, coordinator of the Stop The Money Pipeline coalition, a group of organizations running a program day this year at one of this year’s most anticipated Earth Day events: a livestream called ‘Earth Day Live’. The three-day event is organized by a broader partnership of environmental groups, the Future Coalition, and starts on April 22. “It is definitely a matter of building the ship as we sail across the sea,” said Connon.
Earth Day Live organizers hope to draw millions of people to commit to climate change action and make it a priority for potential voters. There will be celebrity cameos and high profile speakers, including Stacey Abrams, Al Gore, Jane Fonda, Joaquin Phoenix, Shepard Fairey, Ai Weiwei and more. Questlove, Ziggy Marley, Jason Mraz, Angélique Kidjo and others will perform. There will even be DJ sets every night with Talib Kweli, Madame Gandhi and Soul Clap for living room dance parties. It is all broadcast on their website and shared on social media.
Connon visited Scotland a few weeks before his brother’s wedding in March, and he realized after returning to the United States that months of planning for Earth Day demonstrations were essentially out the door. “I felt like 35 years had passed how many things had changed,” he said. He and other organizers are telling The edge they worked overtime last month to recalibrate.
Youth-led groups, such as the Sunrise Movement, typically occupy the offices of legislators and step onto the curb to pursue change. They started figuring out in March how they could have the same impact over the phone and online, after canceling smaller promotions. Their Earth Day plans had been on the move since September, and a 50th anniversary could not be canceled or moved. So the future coalition announced on March 13 that they would “think creatively about how to disrupt things as usual.” They had about five weeks to find out.
It took an initial wave of Zoom calls and ideas on Google Docs for their new plan to come true. Groups had already turned to social media to keep their own campaigns going. But more of the same wouldn’t be enough for Earth Day.
“From the very beginning, we knew in mind that we had to match the momentum, and that it couldn’t just be a social media campaign that you just enjoy doing a tweet storm,” said Dillon Bernard, Future Coalition’s communications director. “To match the impact we wanted to make, it had to be something out of the question, because I think that as a youth-led movement, we are also somewhat following the line of what would normally be considered impossible.”
Many of the groups behind Earth Day Live – including the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion – were the driving forces behind a series of mass protests last year. In September, protesters demanding ambitious climate action surrounded the United Nations climate conference in New York. In October, the iconic Wall Street bull was doused in blood by activists with Extinction Rebellion, who said it symbolized what they saw as Wall Street prioritizing fossil fuel gains over human life.
Protest coordinators keep the details a secret until the livestream kicks off on the 22nd, but a few groups have already outlined some preliminary efforts targeting fossil fuels. The Stop the Money Pipeline coalition originally planned to protest at Chase sites to pressure the bank to fully dispose of fossil fuels. Now those protests should go online, possibly by striving to rate pages like Yelp for each location, according to organizers.
For many of the young organizers The edge spoken, this year is one of the first times they have taken part in demonstrations marking Earth Day – a day that has recently been associated more with valuing trees and polar bears than collecting against injustice.
But the first Earth Day in 1970 was born out of indignation and frustration. It was organized in the aftermath of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and the damage caused by the pesticide DDT uncovered in Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring.
“This is not about a party, it never has been. It was about creating the world’s largest movement to force our leaders, our business leaders, our national leaders, and even our international leaders to get out and do something, “said Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network , which stems from the very first Earth Day and helps coordinate annual events worldwide. “You can’t use the word celebrate in our office,” says Rogers.
Phone calls and messages in multiple languages flooded Rogers’ office after announcing that Earth Day 2020 should go digital, some from groups that had planned events for years. “It was so sad,” she says, listing projects that are left out – orchestras that planned to perform 24 hours straight, dance companies that choreographed original pieces, Sikh religious leaders who put plastic in their temples had been banned leading up to a major Earth Day event.
Some of those projects may still take place during Earth’s six-month anniversary in October, or perhaps before 51st anniversary next year, Rogers says. Others can participate in the live stream this week.
The Earth Day Live broadcast will feature a national live stream, and the event website will include a map and links for local live streams in the United States and the world. It reflects the way the climate movement itself is a patchwork of individuals and groups working from all over the world who come together to tackle a global crisis. Their hope is that meeting online in a new way can provide the foundation for a digital infrastructure that can advance their work afterward, especially during the 2020 election season in the US.
“Absolutely nothing, an entire infrastructure has been created throughout the month,” says Connon The edge. The Future Coalition has turned to groups like the non-profit organization of engineers, technologists and activists Fight for the Future and others for technical support.
A 72-hour live stream is no easy task during a pandemic. Event organizers built a new website dedicated to the three-day live stream. They also partner with media studio Mobeon and the video platform Maestro to make the livestream interactive. Since it will be a major focus to get people to vote for candidates who support a strong climate policy, viewers can click on an overlay that asks them to register to vote through the non-profit Rock The Vote.
Without the help of their many partners: “I think we can get it done differently, but it may not look good and may crash,” Bernard says with a laugh. They have put together a virtual ‘war room’ with organizers on Zoom that will solve any problems. If the video freezes on the web page, they have backup inclusions. If the website itself crashes, they quickly redirect viewers to another channel to view, most likely the organizer’s Twitch page.
In their efforts to “reach every corner of the Internet,” Bernard says, they have increased their reach. People who tune in to the live stream and have never taken to the streets for a climate strike can participate the next time the opportunity presents itself. The coalition has built new relationships with celebrities who join their Earth Day program, whom they hope will be able to count on it again in the future. And the next time they organize a real rally, which many of the participating groups typically record on Twitter or Facebook Live, they will have the tools to put together a more advanced broadcast. Finally, Bernard says, “If we can get back on the street, I think our movement will be stronger.”