Alex Lines had big plans for Earth Day. As an organizer with Sunrise Movement Asheville, the local chapter of the national Sunrise Movement climate justice group, she’d hoped to contribute to the largest worldwide climate strike in history and help register hundreds of thousands of people to vote in the November elections.
“This is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and we wanted to revive the mass noncooperation and energy that originally led to the passage of the Clean Air [Act] and Clean Water Act and the creation of the [federal Environmental Protection Agency],” Lines says. “The original Earth Day was transformational and pressured Richard Nixon into taking environmental reform seriously.”
But while this year’s Earth Day marks a historic milestone for the environmental movement, it also falls within the duration of Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay-home order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19; the order is currently set to expire Wednesday, April 29. Mass gatherings are prohibited, and many of the parks and trails from which lovers of the outdoors draw their inspiration are closed to visitors.
Many groups throughout Western North Carolina, including Sunrise, have responded by moving their Earth Day activities to the virtual sphere. Just because those observances can only take place online, however, doesn’t mean environmentalists are losing heart in their work to bring about a more sustainable planet.
“This COVID-19 crisis is a crisis for many of us and for us as a society, but it’s also an opportunity because it gives us a chance, a very rare chance, to step back from our busy lives and reflect on where we want to be going as a society,” says Rose Jenkins Lane, spokesperson for Hendersonville-based nonprofit Conserving Carolina. “It shows us that we can make big changes.”
Keeping the pace
Lane says Conserving Carolina has seen strong responses from its members as the organization has transitioned more of its programming online, particularly on social media. Posts encouraging people to share their experiences of backyard wildflowers and window-seat bird watching — and use those experiences as a springboard to wildlife conservation — have been especially popular.
“When it turned out that home was going to be where we were spending a lot more of our time, it seemed like a good opportunity to amp that up,” Lane says. “Our members have appreciated opportunities to connect with something hopeful, something pleasant and enjoyable.”
The Sierra Club of Western North Carolina has also been successful at keeping its members virtually engaged. Judy Mattox, the group’s chair, says an April 2 webinar on the U.S. Forest Service’s revised management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests drew over 100 viewers, in line with attendance at regular in-person meetings. And club members used the information shared during the webinar to submit online comments about the plan in support of wilderness protection.
The online shift has come with some challenges. While its member engagement remains strong, Lane says, Conserving Carolina isn’t sure how donations will be affected as in-person events remain on hold. And Lines notes that Sunrise, which thrives on high-visibility public actions such as December’s occupation of Asheville City Hall, has found organizing to be harder.
But Lines adds that COVID-19 has also sharpened Sunrise’s messaging around the need for systemic change to address environmental problems. “We hope that people are able to see that the climate crisis and the coronavirus are linked and both stem from the same corrupt system,” she explains. “The communities most impacted by the climate crisis are the communities most impacted by the virus and the economic fallout it’s creating. The government treats some people and communities as expendable and prioritizes corporate interest over human life and community health.”
Beyond the screen
While social distancing requirements have put a momentary pause on group efforts, some WNC organizations are still encouraging people to take individual action in the real world. Chelsea Rath, community engagement coordinator for Asheville GreenWorks, says the nonprofit has established stations throughout the city where residents can pick up supplies for self-directed neighborhood cleanups.
To keep its push for increased urban forest canopy alive, Rath adds, GreenWorks has delivered hundreds of trees to Buncombe County homes in lieu of its usual in-person giveaway. “We remain committed to inspire, equip and mobilize our communities so that we all reap the benefits of clean water, fresh air and access to unspoiled nature within and around our urban spaces,” she says.
And Conserving Carolina’s “Habitat at Home” contest is using the promise of social media cred to promote pollinator and wildlife habitat projects like bird boxes and bee hotels. Area residents can submit photos of their work to earn online shoutouts, as well as prizes from businesses such as New Leaf Garden Market and Spriggly’s Beescaping.
“Conservation in parks and nature preserves isn’t enough,” Lane says about the contest. “Wild animals need more places to live, and we all have a role to play.”