The rush-hour traffic has subsided and, overhead, planes fly with lessened frequency as the Earth, in its eons-old circumnavigation of the sun, brings the 2020 calendar careening toward April 22—Earth Day.
The 50th anniversary of the international holiday will pass in relative silence this year on Cape Cod, without the traditional beach clean-ups, guided nature tours or public gatherings in honor of the planet on which most of us will spend every day of our lives.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Earth Day has taken on a different tenor for many as human connections to nature become personal, a sense of global community coalesces and the role of human impact on the surrounding world becomes clear.
Nancy Carliss, a landscaper and gardener in Falmouth, said that amid the pervading health crisis, “I have to be separated from my family even though we’re all on the Cape.”
One day, when returning an item to her mother, Ms. Carliss hugged a tree. “I’m transferring it to you,” she told her mother from a distance.
For Ms. Carliss, who is “finding a lot of comfort in the earth right now,” Earth Day “would be a time to really reflect on how we take care of the earth and ourselves and how we can be better about it.”
A regular beachcomber, Ms. Carliss said that even outside of the organized cleanup events of Earth Days past, “I always pick stuff up.”
In her usual outings to local beaches and nature preserves, Ms. Carliss said, she has noticed an increase in the number of people outdoors and has been encouraged to see bicyclists rather than cars on the roadway.
“I’m always aware this time of year, spring, of the rebirth,” Ms. Carliss said. “We could think of it as, when we get past this and figure out how we deal with the new normal of the world, pay attention to what’s around us.”
Judith Holt, an energy management and solar expert who lives in Sandwich, said she became involved with the environmental movement as a college student during the oil embargo in 1973.
For Ms. Holt, who has focused her career in design around renewable energy and helping individuals and businesses reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, “This is genuinely the first Earth Day I have experienced where we are one as an Earth full of people—all of us in this all together.”
Ms. Holt said that while she is “concerned that the work for climate change will suffer in the stress we’re all feeling” due to the health crisis, “on the whole I feel closer to humanity than ever before because we’re experiencing this as a global community.”
“We need to grieve this crisis before we can take [on] anything else,” she said of the COVID-19 crisis.
When the time comes, Ms. Holt said, “Let’s remember this moment as we move on from COVID-19 to a world in desperate need of environmental attention.”
“As with a virus, many of us cannot see firsthand what climate change is doing,” she said. “But, we all know inside things are not right. We have to trust the science. We need to each do our part. We need leaders who will take the reins and make the changes required.”
Amid the societal pause caused by the COVID-19 crisis, which has in a matter of days reduced air pollution in some cities so much as to reveal distant mountains not visible for decades, the impacts of humans on the earth is visible, she said.
“We can see with the coronavirus, if we do act quickly, there is an immediate impact,” Ms. Holt said.
She noted that many faith communities on Cape Cod, especially those part of the Faith Communities Environmental Network, will observe Earth Day through digital mediums.
“People turn to faith for solace and comfort and a moral compass and people continue to do that and are doing it virtually,” Ms. Holt said. “Many of these faith communities have really embraced climate change and the stewardship issue that is motivated by the heart of what their faith is about.”
Andrew R. Gottlieb, the executive director of the environmental nonprofit the Association to Preserve Cape Cod who is also a Mashpee resident and selectman, said, “To my mind you use Earth Day as a little bit of a point of reflection.”
While the beach cleanups will not take place on Earth Day, “cleaning up the mess we made the other 364 days of the year in a lot of ways kind of misses the point,” Mr. Gottlieb said.
“The situation forced upon us through the pandemic is to think a little bit differently about how we structure society,” he said, noting the regional shortages and economic disruption caused by the pandemic.
From where and how food is produced to how people get to and from work, the pandemic “complicated the public discussion” by forcing people to think about how society can become “more able to respond to and survive these shocks to the system,” he said.
Though climate change is unrelated to the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Gottlieb said, a warming climate is predicted to cause “increased disease and transmission of communicable disease,” as well as other large-scale disruptions to the status quo.
He also noted the visible changes caused by the economic and societal disruption of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Not to say in any way, shape or form that this is a good thing,” Mr. Gottlieb said of the crisis. “But there are monitorable, trackable changes to the environment.”
As the economy looks to reopen after the shock dealt by the pandemic, “Now is the time to look at investing in wind and solar,” he said.
In Falmouth, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day has been proclaimed “Rachel Carson Day” by the board of selectmen in honor of the scientist and author often credited with initiating the environmental movement with the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962.
The 1962 book written by Ms. Carson, who once worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, documents the dangers of insecticides on human health and the environment, and paved the way for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and various environmental reforms.
“I think Earth Day has always been an opportunity to celebrate the environment around us and how we can take action,” said Judith McDowell, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole. “To me Rachel Carson is the epitome of what we choose to celebrate on Earth Day.”
As a member of the Falmouth Water Stewards, who planned to unveil the fifth installment of a reusable water filling station not far from a statue of Ms. Carson in Waterfront Park in Woods Hole on Wednesday, April 22, Dr. McDowell said that, even in unprecedented times, “We must take action to protect the environment.”
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the celebration of Ms. Carson and Earth Day will not take place in Waterfront Park but virtually through a website which will be shared through social media.
Though the park will be lacking human celebration on Earth Day, efforts to protect the earth and the life it fosters continue.
“I think Rachel Carson, if she was here today, she would say, you’ve done okay but don’t stop, there’s more to do,” Dr. McDowell said.