Harnessing the Power of Collective Action

For the past 50 years, Earth Day has been marked by beach clean-ups, tree plantings, and raising our collective voice through rallies and outdoor events. Last year, when we began planning for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, we couldn’t have imagined that most of our events would be online and that we would be asking people to take climate action from home. This year, it feels like Mother Earth has sent us to our rooms for a global “time out.”

Today’s public health crisis has revealed how profoundly interconnected we are and the absolute necessity for collective action. Fortunately, as a City, that’s where San Francisco excels. Our unique ability to come together is why we are leading the nation in our response to COVID-19. It’s also why we are global leaders on climate action.

This crisis has also called on us to reconcile two of the City’s most important guiding environmental principles. Our Zero Waste goal demands that we dramatically reduce what we use in order to conserve resources. The other — the Precautionary Principle — adopted by San Francisco more than a decade ago, states that in the face of significant harm, lack of full scientific certainty around cause and effect shall not be a reason to postpone action. It has been used by our city multiple times, including to take protective action against toxic chemicals in children’s products. We now find ourselves invoking the principle to tackle a new enemy in our midst — a virus. With an incomplete understanding of how best to protect ourselves from this virus, we are suspending some environmental norms we hold dear and doing things we know are not good for the planet.

It is in this context that we are limiting the use of reusable products such as shopping bags and coffee cups that will be handled by others. The same goes for mass transit. After years of promoting public transportation instead of driving, we are now asking residents to limit their time on buses. In this moment, we must ensure that we protect those serving on the front lines — cashiers, wait staff, City employees, and others. Now, more than ever, the crisis is shining a spotlight on community and how we take care of each other. It has shown us the power of collective action, as we take care of our neighbors and those we’ve never met. It has also exposed some of the inequities in our society.

Paradoxically, even as we suspend some of our stringent local practices to care for one another, the environment is benefiting from this crisis. Emissions are down because we aren’t driving or flying. We’ve seen the improved air quality in photographs and satellite images from around the world and we can see and feel the improved air quality in our own city.

Fortunately, there are still things we can do to help the environment and recognize the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. We can do a home waste audit, maximizing what goes into our blue and green bins, and getting ever closer towards Zero Waste. While we’re preparing meals at home, we can make sure we use up everything in our refrigerators and cupboards and then compost any food-related waste. We can sign up for 100% renewable electricity with CleanPowerSF. We can participate in the myriad virtual climate events taking place during the month.

One day, we will emerge from this current crisis. Athletes talk about the concept of “muscle memory”–repeated practice settles a movement into their muscles, so it becomes second nature. There is no need to despair, when it comes to environmental action, San Franciscans have a fairly well-developed muscle memory.

I know we won’t have to work too hard to start using these muscles again. We will joyfully take our reusable shopping bags and mugs out from where we’ve stored them. We also won’t forget the clean air that manifested overnight when people stopped driving internal combustion vehicles. We will continue to ask people to walk, ride their bikes, and jump on Muni. And perhaps most importantly, we will get back to demanding more sustainable practices from the companies with whom we do business.

When that time comes and we emerge from our “rooms,” it will be more than just business as usual. We will retain the muscle memory of how powerful collective action can be and carry it into the future as we work on healing the planet with a heightened sense of equity and justice.

San Francisco’s environment department: Our Home. Our City. Our Planet.