A photo of an Earth Day protest sign showing the globe with the words "One World" written on it.
A photo of an Earth Day protest sign. Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

“Earth Day: an SOS for survival.”

That’s how NBC opened their coverage of the first ever Earth Day 54 years ago. The news reporter went on to describe the activities from that day: impromptu concerts, tens of thousands of people marching in the streets, activists crawling into symbolic prop coffins to protest air pollution, and violent overreactions toward peaceful crowds from baton-wielding police—all sadly familiar and non-surprising in our modern day context. It was something else the news reporter said that got my attention.

“Ecology is a non-controversial idea. No one is against survival,” he said.

Taken at face value, it makes sense. What human would be against the survival of our very species? Surely we must have self-preservation built into us as animals. But a short reflection on the recent past, even just the last century, reminds me of the disturbing proof that shows capitalism and colonialism are against survival—at least the survival of those that are deemed replaceable commodities.

In war, the destruction of entire ecosystems is excused in the name of “security.” And civilians being deliberately targeted as a means of achieving military goals is accepted. In the colonial projects of Canada and the US, the safety and health of people (usually People of Colour) are disregarded as a cost of doing business.

Injustices building tension before the first Earth Day

In the 1960s, the American civil rights and anti-war movements were changing the course of history as students, veterans, civil rights leaders and workers combined their power and mobilized to fight for change. By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it is estimated that between one-to-three million people had died with hundreds of thousands more left severely disabled. The destruction of the environment in Vietnam was catastrophic, popularizing the term ecocide to describe the deliberate decimation of the ecosystem, in this case with the use of anti-plant warfare with chemicals like so-called Agent Orange. The toxic chemicals in Agent Orange worked as a defoliant by stripping all the foliage from plant life after being sprayed over large swaths of land—the devastating and toxic aftermath of which is still gravely impacting Vietnam.

These mass atrocities to both humans and ecosystems, and the countless others that preceded it, set the scene for a new, environmentally-focussed movement to emerge.

The first Earth Day kicked off when 20 million people protested for less pollution, more sustainable communities, and protection of the waters by marching and dancing across America. In cities like Philadelphia, the first Earth Day was predominantly made up of white activists, as reported by Penn’s Earth Day Project.

“At the Philadelphia celebration in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia Tribune reporters spotted less than 100 black participants, most of whom were young students and teachers, among the crowd of 25-30,000,” the report states. Some Black organizers viewed Earth Day as a distraction from civil rights activism and also as a means for white people to fight for better living conditions for themselves while ignoring the communities with Black, Brown and Indigenous Peoples that bear the brunt of the pollution due to environmental racism.

Around the same time, one of the worst ecocidal catastrophes in Canadian history was unfolding in Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek territory (also known as Grassy Narrows). Between the years of 1962 and 1970, mass amounts of toxic mercury was dumped into the English-Wabigoon river system by the Dryden Chemical plant, causing irreparable damage to the waterways, plants, animals and human life. Most Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, who lived downstream from the Dryden paper mill, were employed in the fish industry and ate fish daily.

Canada’s National Observer reported that the Ontario government knew about the toxic pollution from industry as early as 1913 and yet the contamination continued, severely impacting the culture, traditions and economy of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek with little to no justice or repercussions from the government or the industry that caused the disaster. In 2023, a study showed that mercury poisoning is to blame for the community’s mental health crisis, finding that 41 per cent of girls in Grassy Narrows have attempted suicide (no suicide had ever been recorded there before 1970.)

Today, Grassy Narrows faces more environmental racism and colonial expansion as industry continues to threaten their traditional land. But the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek have been fighting back with Canada’s longest blockade against unwanted logging and with protests against mining without their consent.

With these instances of ecocide materializing and the anti-war movements growing strong, it becomes more clear why millions of people joined the first Earth Day in 1970. But the reporting from that day highlights one of the fundamental challenges we face in our attempts to fight for change under capitalism and colonialism: some people and some land will always be viewed as disposable, so long as there is money to be made and power to be built to protect the colonial project.

No one is against survival, except those who are

Half a century after the first Earth Day, militarism is raging on as colonialism’s favourite tool for domination.

One such branch of militarism is a special unit of the RCMP that was formed to deal with people who are resisting industrial corporations attempting to expand with more mines, pipelines and factories, especially on Indigenous territories. This unit was called the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) but recently rebranded as the Critical Response Unit (CRU) after many controversies.

This unit has infamously targeted Wet’suwet’en resistances and blockades to stop the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, subjecting land defenders to violent harassment, unlawful surveillance and criminalization, according to a report by Amnesty International. This level of violence and secrecy has been inflicted on Indigenous land defenders because they dare to reaffirm their sovereignty and resist exploitation from industries that have already taken so much.

Mountains of research shows that fossil fuels and other extractive industries are killing us—killing the land, polluting the water, poisoning our communities, decimating animal and plant life, all of which are vital parts of our ecosystem that we rely on to survive.

Knowing this, and watching the horrific genocide of Palestinians sponsored by Canada and other western nations, plus the wars and ecocides in Sudan, Ukraine, Haiti and other nations around the world, make it clear that there are indeed people and institutions that are against our survival. But we cannot give up.

Many of us in the so-called climate movement are fighting for change within the system by democratically advocating for stronger policies and trying to mobilize people to vote for friendly politicians, and with direct action and protest like blockades and economic disruption. But we are met with gaslighting from politicians who do deals with fossil fuel corporations, or who seek to appease those who deny the reality of human-caused climate change. Our protests and resistances for change are also met with violence with the purpose of upholding the capitalist interests, at any and all costs necessary.

Earth Day 2024 is another SOS for survival. And though this year’s Earth Day theme is “planet vs plastics”, the fight can’t just be about ending plastics. Fossil fuel corporations continue to ramp up production and pollution in the name of capitalism and powerful states continue to commit ecocide and genocide in the name of “security.” Who will pick up our distress call?

As today’s Palestine solidarity marches and the historic anti-war protests have shown us, it’s we, the people. May we never forget the power that we have.

Erin Blondeau

Erin Blondeau (she/her) is a Métis mom living on the west coast of so-called British Columbia on unceded Quw’utsun territory. Her paternal family comes from the Red River Settlements and the Qu’Appelle...