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Virtual Earth Day celebrates the outdoors from the inside

Speakers, musicians gather over Zoom to mark 50th anniversary

Sunflowers wave in the wind in a Pacific Biodiesel field in Waikapu Saturday. While they couldn’t be outdoors to enjoy Maui’s scenery on Sunday, about 30 presenters and 20 musicians gathered online over Zoom to celebrate Earth Day. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Organizers of Maui’s first Earth Day event in 1970 could have never imagined how it would be celebrated 50 years later — over Zoom in a pandemic.

“When we did that 50 years ago, the world was so different. Maui was so different,” said Kula resident Dick Mayer, who was involved in the first Earth Day.

On Sunday, Mayer and dozens of other Maui residents livestreamed speeches and music from their living rooms and garages, finding a way to celebrate the Earth even though they couldn’t gather together outdoors. From noon till 8 p.m., about 30 presenters and 20 musicians took turns sharing their thoughts and musical numbers.

The first-ever Earth Day in the U.S. was celebrated on April 22, 1970, the year after man had just arrived on the moon. Mayer recalled how for the first time, people were able to see pictures of the Earth, “a little ball out in space,” and began to realize just how overpopulated Earth was becoming and how interconnected human actions were to widespread problems like air and water pollution and an excess of waste.

Fifty years later, the spread of the new coronavirus has brought some of these issues to the forefront, emphasizing the need to protect the environment, to follow Maui’s island and community plans and to diversify the economy to prepare for times of crisis, Earth Day speakers said.

Rayel Wyatt of Paia poses for a quick photo for sister Shawna Wyatt while taking a walk along the Kuihelani Highway edge of a Waikapu sunflower field Saturday. They said the bright flowers were a pick-me-up from the challenges of the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19. “We’re both restaurant people so it’s a little difficult for us,” Rayel Wyatt said. “But we’re both active and we’re trying to stay positive.”

“Moving forward I visualize a brighter future, and I think we’re on the pathway there if we can sit down and admit what’s happening now,” said Council Member Kelly King, who chairs the Climate Action and Resilience Committee. “We can’t just go back to normal. We can’t look forward to tourism the way it was, and we can’t look forward to tourism being our main part of our economy.”

King said she would like to see the community “get to the point of building an economy that’s diversified enough that if one section of it goes down we don’t explode.” That means investment in agriculture, technology, creative arts, cultural programs and courses like the sustainable science management program at the University of Hawaii-Maui College.

Jennifer Karaca, a graduate of that program and an Earth Day speaker, was one of many to advocate for better food security and sustainability on Maui, where residents have been flocking to stores to scoop up groceries during the pandemic.

Karaca is the co-founder and executive director of Common Ground Collective, a nonprofit that seeks to harvest and distribute excess fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms that would otherwise go to waste. Since the beginning of the year, with just one person harvesting one day a week, they’ve been able to collect 7,432 pounds of local produce, with 3,237 pounds going to local community organizations and 4,195 going to local businesses.

“I literally leave thousands of pounds of food behind because I’m not capable of doing it myself,” Karaca said. “So this is a viable source of local produce and food that we could be redirecting into our food system and prevent it from not only going to waste but also giving these landowners incentives to do that.”

Maui residents who don’t have farms and produce to offer can still support sustainability in other ways from their own homes, other speakers said. Rob Weltman of ReTree Hawaii said one of the best natural technologies for fighting climate change is trees and plants.

“It is, after all, the trees and other plants that made animal life on Earth possible to begin with by consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen,” Weltman said. “And if we would just stop burning and cutting down the forest and instead replacing and expanding them, it will pay us back by helping restore the balance.”

Weltman said that trees can help improve water and air quality, stabilize air temperatures, create wildlife habitats as well as beautify the environment. La Ho’oulu Pae Moku, ReTree Hawaii, is a campaign by dozens of government and nonprofit agencies to put trees and plants into the ground across the state on Oct. 30. Companies, schools or organizations with space for plants can register a site at retree-hawaii.org, and residents can also sign up to help plant or find handy guides to the native plants that work best in their home communities.

While environmental groups have made many strides since the first Earth Day 50 years ago, there are still more struggles ahead, speakers said. Lucienne De Naie of the Sierra Club Maui Group said that fighting for environmental justice means standing with communities facing physical problems like pollution in their backyards, as well as “things of a more spiritual nature” like protecting Maui’s sacred places, such as Haleakala.

“A lot of times it’s hard to win these types of long-term battles, but just standing is important too because the generations rise up and learn the stories,” De Naie said.

Many streams in East Maui have been restored, but still more remain. Ancient burials in areas of development still need protection. And homes are being built next to fields, exposed to windblown pesticides.

“We can love the environment, but if we do not take care of the people, we are leaving a lot behind,” De Naie said. “Environmental justice is about our environment and about people.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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