What is Earth Day, and do we really need it? Emma Hazelwood

Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day is the world’s largest environmental movement, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. It is a day dedicated to raising awareness of various environmental issues worldwide.

Earth Day was started in 1970. Its founder, Gaylord Nelson, had witnessed the appalling consequences of a massive oil spill in California, 1969. Inspired by the student anti-war movement in the US, he wanted to have a similar campaign for environmental protection, in the hopes that politicians would have no choice but to start taking the conservation of our planet seriously.

It is believed that on the first Earth Day, 22nd April 1970, twenty million Americans took part in rallies across the county. It united different groups of activists, as well as people from all walks of life, and is often credited with launching the modern environmental movement. The demonstration led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.

Since then, the campaign has grown beyond what anyone could have predicted. An effort to make it go global in 1990 paved the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992. With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on the horizon, the campaign is now aiming to reignite the flame of environmental activism, in a bid to fight the rising atmosphere of cynicism and distrust surrounding climate change.

The Earth Day 2018 campaign is based on ending plastic pollution. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, so it piles up in the environment, and poisons marine life and our water systems. More than eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, and by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Plastic build up results in animal entanglement, ingestion, or habitat disruption. This not only depletes fish stocks, but can result in the build-up of toxins in our food, resulting in higher rates of cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity and many more health issues for humans. As is often the case with rising environmental issues, communities which suffer the most from plastic pollution are often already vulnerable. With the rise of zero waste shops (and David Attenborough’s calls for no more plastic straws), plastic-free life is becoming more and more achievable.

Plastic washed ashore on a beach in San Francisco.

However, plastic pollution is just one of the issues facing our planet. The recent death of the last male Northern white rhino has rendered the species functionally extinct (though there are hopes that IVF may be able to bring the species back from the brink). Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue, with 5,583 animal species considered to be critically endangered. Habitat loss due to human expansion and hunting are often major causes.

Another area for concern is the bleaching of coral reefs. We have already lost half of the world’s coral reefs, and 90% will be gone by 2050. Death of the organisms which used to inhabited reefs is linked to a rise in ocean temperature, as a result of climate change. Bleaching happens when coral get so stressed by extreme temperature that they release the tiny algae, known as zooxanthellae, which provide the coral with their food. A higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere means that more is being dissolved into the ocean, causing ocean acidification. This, along with overfishing, is another problem for coral reefs, as it makes it harder for vital reef organisms to build their exoskeletons. Coral reefs are often described as “underwater rainforests” because of the vast numbers of species that rely on them. Their death is not only a tragedy for biodiversity, but could actually make global warming even worse, as they also produce oxygen. They are also important for tourism, and bring in billions of dollars in revenue in some places.

A bleached coral reef, which was once teaming with life and full of vibrant colours.

This Earth Day, there is a drive to cut down on plastic use. You can calculate your plastic pollution here: https://www.earthday.org/plastic-calculator/, and there is a guide to living plastic free here: https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/. Hopefully Earth Day 2018 will convince both governments and individuals to start making meaningful and much needed changes to cut down on plastic pollution. However, with so many ecosystems being threatened by human activity, it is vital that we start to consider the wider effects of our lifestyle every day.

More information on Earth Day’s End Plastic Pollution Campaign: https://www.earthday.org/campaigns/plastics-campaign/

For more information on plastic build up in oceans: https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

More information on endangered species: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43475872

More information on coral reef bleaching: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/environment-90-percent-coral-reefs-die-2050-climate-change-bleaching-pollution-a7626911.html

A few zero waste shops will soon be opening in Sheffield – one in our very own  SU   https://www.facebook.com/OurZeroWasteShop/ and one in Crookes https://www.unwrappedshop.co.uk/

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