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Earth Day at 50

Today Earth Day turns 50, and 50th birthdays are big milestones at AARP. But what does Earth Day mean in 2020, when the world is grappling with a massive public health crisis? And how is the news media telling that story?

On AARP's website and in the AARP Bulletin, we have a fascinating interview with Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. He recounts how newspaper articles played a critical role in spreading the word about the first-ever observance. Today, Hayes remains optimistic about our ability to create change: "You can't get people to do anything unless there is hope of success," he says. For many, that day in 1970 spurred hope for change and a lifelong commitment to thinking about our planet and the world we will leave to future generations.

Earth Day has evolved over the years — perhaps most dramatically this year because of COVID-19. And, notably, hope is under strain: for one, stay-at-home orders are at odds with organizing a clean-up or a rally. But CBS News answers those challenges with a comprehensive article entitled, “Stuck at home on Earth Day? Here’s how to celebrate the planet online.” CBS shares opportunities to engage with a range of public and private efforts to celebrate #EarthDayAtHome.

A provocative L.A. Times editorial recounts the story of the first Earth Day and ties this year's observance to coronavirus concerns. Many people don’t know there was a dreadful offshore oil spill in Jan. 1969 near Santa Barbara, Calif., that sparked Earth Day’s creation. But the Times’ online headline is bland—“Happy 50th birthday, Earth Day”—not nearly as provocative as its print headline: “Earth Day is a reminder that planet’s biggest threat isn't coronavirus—it’s us.”

I personally would be cautious about associating humanity only with doom, because I think Hayes is right that we need hope to inspire people to act. Also, one thing is true about the world today that has always been true: we have many, many challenges to confront and solve.

Health Care is an issue our nation needs to deal with, but every component of the system has its own obstacles: high drug prices, heatlh disparities, doctor shortages, etc. The same goes for environmental protection: just consider the diversity of topics covered in these "10 key moments that shaped environmental history."

That all said, I believe news organizations, like the L.A. Times, are at their best when they're facilitating debate and conversation — and hopefully fresh, timely solutions. I certainly appreciate the Times' insight that "Earth Day reminds us of the delicate intricacies of the natural world, and that we are just one piece of it." You could say that of coronavirus, too.

One of the things I appreciate most about working at AARP is our commitment to social mission and the activism and volunteerism of our members. AARP's Red Shirts and AARP Foundation volunteers prove to me time and time again that they aren't just eye witnesses to history, but active participants.

One of my other recent favorite articles from our contnet team told the stories of several "citizen scientists." It reported how, across the U.S., volunteers are collecting vital data for research projects — and it's often older adults, who may have spare time and a desire to connect with like-minded people. Mary White, an amateur photograper in Port St. Lucie, Fla., shared how she's using her skills to catalog pollinators that are attracted to various kinds of plants. It's the kind of grassroots action and field work that underscores how precious it is to give one's time and attention to a cause.

Volunteerism, of course, isn't confined to one stage of life. Many employers, for example, support volunteerism among employees, sometimes as a team building or morale-enhancing initiative and sometimes to promote work-life balance, a sense of community, or even professional development. At AARP, we call our program "Community Builders," and it offers employees up to six work days of paid leave to do volunteer work. We tackle just about every problem there is: from helping as a reading tutor to river restoration to meal packing for food-insecure seniors.

Are you looking for something you can do to get involved this Earth Day? Perhaps start by checking out AARP's "Volunteer Guide: Easy Ways to Help Others Go Green," which our Create The Good program developed with the Earth Day Network. Among the many tips, my favorite is one that fits well with our current concerns over stopping the spread of coronavirus: cut down on paper bills and payments coming to and from your home.

Earth Day at 50 has grown, evolved, and stood the test of time. And even though April 22, 2020, is #EarthDayAtHome, I think the message is much the same that COVID-19 is teaching us: we need to rise to the occasion, adapt our methods, and keep our focus on the problems and challenges of now.

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