Earth Day Turns 50

A headshot of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She stares directly in the camera and is smiling. She is wearing a colorful blue top and scarf and a blue head covering.

April 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In addition to celebrating life on Earth, Earth Day was founded to alert humanity to the need for preserving and renewing the threatened ecological balances upon which all life depends.

For me, Earth Day has taken on new meaning as I witness (and feel) the overwhelming evidence that atmospheric, geologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now being drastically altered by our human activity.

Perhaps I would not be as profoundly affected by this planetary crisis had I and my life and filmmaking partner, Alan Dater, not had the good fortune to meet the late, great Kenyan environmental and women’s rights activist and planter of trees, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai. A year after we started working on our film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, Professor Maathai became the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She recognized that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible. She knew from experience that conflict was mostly rooted in inequitable distribution of resources. April 1st this year would have been her 80th birthday.

“Prof,” as she was lovingly known, became a mentor and great friend during the decade that we knew her. She grew up in a small, rural village in the Central Highlands of Kenya and had a deep understanding of the delicate balance of the natural world, made stronger by her work as a biologist. She loved the Earth for its nurturing of life and communicated her passionate care for it in everything she did whether she was with presidents and royalty, or the women from her village. She knew that without a healthy and vital planet, political power and material wealth meant nothing.

As we as a species come face to face with the climate crisis and the ramifications for the future of all life on Earth, Wangari Maathai is a prophet for our time. Her holistic vision of a whole and healthy planet is ours to embrace and live up to.

New Day Films has a collection of compelling, personal films that explore the environment and sustainability. They will support you and your students in celebrating Earth Day this year and help probe the difficult questions that this 50th anniversary brings forth. Some you might consider using are:

Sun Come Up by Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger follows the relocation of some of the world’s first climate refugees; Bag It by Suzan Beraza is a wholesale investigation into plastic's effects on our oceans, environment, and bodies; Water Warriors by Michael Premo is the story of a community’s successful resistance against the oil and gas industry; Eating Alaska by Ellen Frankenstein and Shirley Thompson is a serious and humorous film about connecting to where you live and eating locally; and Rebels With A Cause by Kenji Yamamoto and Nancy Kelly spotlights a battle over land that changed the American landscape forever.

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