When lockdowns rolled out around the world in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, it wasn’t just our daily routines that were upended. Also lost in the shuffle were the lofty plans of countless Gen Z environmental activists, many of whom had been organizing community-wide celebrations in honor of Earth Day on April 22.
With strict quarantines now in full effect, those plans have largely gone out the window. But fast-thinking Gen Zers — aka members of the generation that’s already given us eco-minded powerhouses like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg — have come up with ways to make a difference this Earth Day without breaking stay-at-home orders. Here’s how four Gen Z activists are celebrating.
Lizette Terrillion, 16 years old (West Springfield, VA)
Girl Scout Lizette Terrillion was ready to spring an elaborate plan into action this Earth Day: Host her annual spring cleanup at a local park, followed by the installation of bee houses at a scout-run summer camp. The bee houses — not to be confused with beehives — are designed to house solitary bees like Virginia’s native Mason species, Terrillion said. These docile buzzers, which don’t produce honey or wax and lack a queen to protect, can pollinate thousands of blooms in a single day. Well-maintained bee houses like these have the potential for huge economic impact, since humans rely on bees to pollinate the crops that sustain us.
Quarantine made both projects impossible in their original incarnations. But Terrillion believes her pivot may prove even more successful: “Instead of having volunteers install and monitor the bee houses in the community, I have gotten youth/family volunteers to adopt a bee house to install and monitor in their own backyards,” she explained. Since lockdown began, Terrillion has helped volunteers install 14 new bee houses, personally delivering them with instructions to participants’ homes and emailing back and forth about bee care.
“As developers replace native vegetation [with] roads, highways, basketball courts, lawns, and non-native gardens, pollinators lose the food and nesting sites needed for their survival,” Terrillion said. The bee house installations feel even more important now than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic, she added. “Our world leaders don’t really put an emphasis on helping the environment,” Terrillion said. “As part of Gen Z, Covid-19 shows us what we have always known: That it’s really up to us to address these issues and help the planet and all its residents.”
Emese Nagy, 16 years old (Albuquerque, NM)
“I believe that climate justice is social justice,” said high school junior Emese Nagy. Minorities and poor communities are most affected by climate change, something Nagy says she’s witnessed up close and personal at home in New Mexico. “The effects fracking has on the environment, especially with the waste and water consumption — not to mention the health effects on people living or working near oil wells — need to be taken seriously by our government,” she said.
With that in mind, Nagy had planned to take part in a protest that was to include provocative anti-fracking performances, “like dumping fake oil onto people who represent the Native American communities who are really paying the price of oil and gas drilling.” After lockdown, Nagy’s focus has shifted: She’s now participating in youth advocacy group Fight For Our Lives’ ABQ Mutual Aid program, which during the pandemic seeks to protect at-risk community members, many of whom are among the most affected by climate change.
“We are delivering groceries to people who cannot go out to get their own either because of disability or financial hardship,” Nagy explained. “I think it’s a great way to show that no matter the situation, our community comes first. They are the reason we are all fighting for climate justice.”
Naina Agrawal-Hardin, 17 years old (Ann Arbor, MI)
This year for Earth Day, Naina Agrawal-Hardin had hoped to channel the holiday’s original celebration in 1970 — with roughly 20 million participants, it was one of the largest mass demonstrations in U.S. history. “Since then, corporations and politicians have started to use Earth Day as an opportunity to paint themselves as environmental champions and engage in greenwashing without actually taking action during the other 364 days of the year,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “I think it’s important that the youth climate movement reclaims Earth Day and celebrates it for what it truly represents: the power of the people to make change.”
Revved up by this sentiment, Agrawal-Hardin had planned to take to the streets in what she anticipated would be a massive, multi-city Climate Strike for Earth Day. People of all ages, colors, and creeds planned to step away from their homes and jobs, “demanding bold, aggressive action” of lawmakers. Instead, Agrawal-Hardin is moving her advocacy online.
“Instead of focusing on mass mobilization in person, I’m helping put together a 72-hour livestream called Earth Day Live focused on community building and education about how the COVID-19 crisis and climate crisis intersect,” Naina Agrawal-Hardin said. The stream will feature people laboring on the front lines of both crises, plus cameos from actors, musicians, comedians, and politicians including Alyssa Milano, Ani DiFranco, Joaquin Phoenix, Questlove, Chelsea Handler, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and many others.
“I do feel like it’s an important opportunity to continue to advocate for society’s most vulnerable and to open the conversation of how to recover from COVID-19 in a way that is humane and sustainable,” she said.
Artemisio Romero y Carver, 17 years old (Lamy, NM)
Early in his high school career, Artemisio Romero y Carver was first turned onto the Green New Deal during a study session for his speech and debate team. “Normally, when you read policy like that for debate, it’s all pretty abstract — it’s the furthest thing from an emotional experience,” Romero y Carver recalled. But this was different. “As a Chicano teenager, I had never read something created by my government that embodied the interests and hopes of myself and my people,” he said.
Moved to action, Romero y Carver helped form YUCCA, or Youth United For Climate Crisis Action. On Earth Day this year, he planned to participate in YUCCA’s large-scale climate strike event in Santa Fe, which would culminate in a day-long march across the city. Instead, like so many others, he’s now logging on to get the message out on April 22 with a Facebook Livestream through YUCCA’s coordinating organization, Earth Care. The stream will include interviews with volunteers working to protect New Mexico from both the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, plus performances by local youth artists. Romero y Carver will also launch a month’s worth of climate-geared education materials on his and Earth Care’s social media platforms.
“The pandemic has made me only more aware of how important environmentalism is,” Romero y Carver reflected. “The same forces of corporate greed and government negligence that have allowed COVID-19 to propagate and kill in this country are the same forces that have been leading us for years towards ecological collapse,” he said, adding that the current crisis is but a tragic glimpse into the future. “In a post-COVID world, we need the Green New Deal, and we need climate justice.”