Earth Day turns 50 this year — a golden anniversary that had dozens of environmental and climate justice groups excited to celebrate.

But this April 22 there won’t be hundreds marching toward city halls, chanting “The seas are rising and so are we” or “This is what our movement looks like” along the way.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the planet and drive most people to stay in their homes and keep their distance from one another —  the exact opposite of what taking-it-to-the-streets activism has always been about. Activists and supporters of environmental justice groups are getting their first go round at what might seem to be the first of many indoor and virtual protests.

Denis Hayes is Earth Day Network’s board chair emeritus and the national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. He said he never thought this would have happened for the big 50th anniversary and was expecting bold action towards climate change after fighting for decades.

“COVID-19 turns out to be the greatest black swan anyone ever could have thought of for events involving mass mobilizations,” said Hayes, a Seattle resident who grew up in the southwest Washington city of Camas. “Instead of 750,000 at the National Mall, it’s now illegal to have a crowd larger than 10.”

The first Earth Day had an estimated 20 million Americans who marched and rallied to demand environmental justice. It is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is recognized as the world’s largest civic event.

Hayes said he was expecting one billion people to participate worldwide in this year’s Earth Day celebrations. He worries taking the protests and rallies online using social media will not have the same impact as mass gatherings do.

“Earth Day 2020, facing a situation in which you cannot have marches, you cannot have demonstrations, you can’t have rallies, can’t have teach-ins,” Hayes said. “All of the instruments that we have used historically to make Earth Day impactful.”

That reflection is felt throughout other environmental and climate justice organizations in Oregon, where folks will still be fighting for environmental justice and stewardship and climate action — except they’ll be doing it from behind their computer and mobile phone screens.

Virtual, Zoom and video rallies

In Portland, student interns with OPAL’s Youth Environmental Justice Alliance or YEJA will be working with Climate Justice Organization 350PDX on a putting on a virtual rally for a few campaigns they are working on, including Oregon Green New Deal and YouthPass For All. Vivian Su, 17, said it’s important to look at the future and work on different campaigns that will positively impact communities. 

Youth Activists working with 350PDX and OPAL's Youth Environmental Justice Alliance, meet through ZOOM Conference App to help them communicate and shift gears for their Earth Day virtual rally. 

Youth Activists working with 350PDX and OPAL’s Youth Environmental Justice Alliance, meet through ZOOM Conference App to help them communicate and shift gears for their Earth Day virtual rally. 

Dallas Haley/Courtesy of 350PDX

“This Earth Day event is definitely a chance to be able let our communities learn about the local climate justice campaigns that are going on and the issues that we have been facing and will continue to face long after this pandemic and Earth Day is over,” Su said.

The virtual rallies will have a panel that will educate viewers about the campaigns and how they can help. They are also encouraging people to submit 30-second video testimonials about why the YouthPass For All campaign is important so they can send them along to Metro councilors.

Se’Maj Taper is an 18-year-old intern with the campaign. She believes the time to get this passed is now more than ever, as the effects of COVID-19 are affecting everyone.

“We recognize that even before the crisis lots of people weren’t able to afford a fare to go on the bus. But now even more so after the crisis, after being furloughed, losing jobs, not even able to have housing, and then of course now that school’s out, so the school passes that we were getting are probably not going to be there anymore,” Taper said. “So, we’re just recognizing we need to be there as a buffer afterwards to help uplift people who have been severely damaged and affected by COVID.”

Digital takeover

Others, like 17-year-old Angelique Prater from Salem, will participate in events held throughout the week, one being online protesting against major banks and other corporations that have been funding oil and fracking projects worldwide.

Prater had big plans for Earth Week, but she decided to focus on one social media movement the day after Earth Day, “Stop the Money Pipeline.”

The original plan was to spend the day with others around Salem protesting outside bank branches — before the coronavirus prompted such action to move to the internet.

“It kind of sucks because it’s not as effective as being able to actually go and stand outside of these banks with a lot of people but it’s kind of the best we can do right now,” Prater said.

Online gestures of protest range from sharing images about the movement or holding signs expressing support for a cause to emailing elected leaders to get their attention and talk about these issues. 

Using social media may not be the best way to protest, Prater said, but she does think social-media pressure can help bring about change.

“I have seen people switch and vote for policies that they said they were not going to vote for just because they have felt so much pressure from an online presence,” Prater said.

She hopes that through this online involvement they can achieve their goals on climate justice and continue to build momentum. If they are able to continue the pressure online and invite more people, it could create a positive impact after the pandemic and create a lot more support for social movements.

Pay attention to science

In Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, many organizations either canceled or postponed their events with the hopes of rescheduling them for the fall, assuming that social-distancing and mass-gathering orders are lifted by then. 

Southern Oregon Climate Action Now’s Kathy Conway said it didn’t feel right to go completely dark on April 22 .

Southern Oregon Climate Action Now's Kathy Conway is at one of Rogue Valley's Earth Day events, where they educate people about climate action. 

Southern Oregon Climate Action Now’s Kathy Conway is at one of Rogue Valley’s Earth Day events, where they educate people about climate action. 

Kathy Conway, SOCAN

“What happened was a real void was left and so, SOCAN doesn’t usually organize an event around Earth Day we’re more a participant. But it just didn’t feel right to not have something,” Conway said.

During her college years, Conway was part of coordinating the first Earth Day back in 1970 when she was a student at what was then called Southern Oregon State College. Now, planning and organizing this year’s Facebook Live event, she said it feels like it was going back and connecting history as several artists, local performers and guest speakers will participate, including Earth Day founder Denis Hayes.

Conway’s hope is for everyone to have a good time, work together, learn from what the world is going through and finally, to continue to connect with others.

“One of the messages from the pandemic is you know, you’ve got to listen to the people who have the background and do the research in the area and so getting back to listening to scientists,” Conway said. “The big one is, we’re all in this together.”

This message is what Hayes hopes people can take away from this Earth day, to listen to scientists.

“I hope that the planet learns more than the Earth Day organizers do, to pay attention to science,” he said. “That when distant early warnings come out of something like the World Health Organization, that you take it seriously and you move swiftly, so that this kind of massive pandemic can’t go from literally zero to shutting down the global economy in the course of a couple of months.”

For now, Hayes knows the time to pass the torch is coming soon but he is confident the next generation will know far more on how to take advantage of using social media and developing opportunities in working with others internationally to help solve the climate crisis.