Actor Jeff Bridges
Actor Jeff Bridges, a Montecito resident, was among many who joined in the virtual Earth Day celebration Wednesday in Santa Barbara. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo via livestream)

Community members across Santa Barbara County and beyond recognized Earth Day’s 50th anniversary on Wednesday — online from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit Community Environmental Council hosted the first-ever digital extravaganza.

It featured livestream and prerecorded videos of entertainment, speakers, question-and-answer sessions, and more during the five-hour watch party.

The gathering also included a two-hour virtual beer garden via Zoom afterward.

Festival organizers in Santa Barbara were forced to canceled in-person Earth Day events amid coronavirus concerns.

For the first time in 25 years, CEC’s CEO Sigrid Wright wasn’t physically surrounded by people at Earth Day, and “it feels strange,” she said.

“Like many of you, I’m struck by the weirdness of this moment, and how the 50th anniversary of Earth Day is intersecting with a global pandemic that’s keeping us apart from one another and bringing our society to a grinding halt,” Wright said.

She is missing human connection and time spent together in the same space “creating the Santa Barbara version of a global event.”

As the nation faced a tough several weeks due to the public health emergency, Wright said, she feels there’s “something trying to emerge from all of this. Some little seed that’s trying to sprout, and that could be because I’m spending a lot of time in my garden these days.”

Wright is planting hundreds of plants, spinach, carrots and radishes while statewide stay-at-home orders are in place.

“Anything green,” Wright said. “I’m going for it.”

Eric Cárdenas, the chief operating officer of LOACOM.

Eric Cárdenas, the chief operating officer of LOACOM, was an emcee for Wednesday’s virtual Earth Day celebration in Santa Barbara. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo via livestream)

Wright said the coronavirus isn’t the community’s first crisis, referring to the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, the massive Thomas Fire in 2017, and the subsequent Montecito flash flooding and debris flows. 

“We know coming out of this pandemic we will be forever changed,” Wright said, mentioning greenhouse gas emissions have significantly dropped in recent months as a result of a massive worldwide economic stall. 

“For me, this Earth Day is about standing in solidarity with those who are maintaining our local food system. It’s about fighting the assumption climate change is some future threat somebody else will deal with. But it’s also about having some fun and providing comfort.” 

Speaking to the online audience, Wright invited people to take their laptop or phone, then go outside, sit under a tree or open a window for fresh air, and “be together for a few hours.”

Actor and activist Jeff Bridges, who supports environmental causes and organizations, made an appearance from inside his home.

“Earth Day is something we can all celebrate,” Bridges said.

The coronavirus shutdown has transformed the planet, he said. Public life has temporarily stopped since virus-related restrictions have gone into effect.

“With this virus, you can see the effect it has on the Earth when we don’t drive as much, fly as much and the industry has slowed down,” Bridges said. “We do have an impact, and we have seen how quickly we can come together, and make a difference.” 

He delivered uplifting messages.

“It’s going to take amazing leadership and transformative action from all walks of life,” Bridges said, later adding, “We can do this. We are creative and transformative creatures.”

Digital activism was on full display Wednesday.

Since the last Earth Day, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed bills that ban offshore oil drilling off the California coast, ensure coastal communities are climate-resilient, and protect the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument, Congressman Salud Carbajal said.

“We will keep fighting against every climate attack from this (Trump) administration,” Carbajal said. “As we combat the coronavirus crisis, we will also make sure the administration doesn’t use this pandemic as a way to continue to force policies that hurt our environment.”

In past years, Santa Barbara’s Earth Day brings a crowd of thousands to Alameda Park for food, vendor booths, exhibits, games, plenty of sunshine and weekend-long environmental stewardship.

“For all of you who can’t be there today,” said David Fortson, LOACOM‘s CEO and co-founder, “we miss you, too, but we are going to do our best.”

Fortson, an event emcee, has worked on Earth Day festivities in the region for more than 25 years.

He described Earth Day as a “time for us to recharge, recalibrate, plot and plan, and figure out how do we move together to protect the planet — our home — the home to all the critters, trees, plants and animals we can help give voice to.”

He kicked off the Santa Barbara Earth Day 2020 at noon Wednesday. 

“Many things are hitting us at the same time,” Fortson said. “We are live casting for you for Santa Barbara Earth Day instead of with 30,000 of our fellow friends in Alameda Park.”

He expressed gratitude to healthcare workers and everyone serving on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, as well as the online viewers staying home except for essential reasons.

“This is a moment that’s so striking,” Fortson said. “Yet you are still taking a moment to figure out how you can do better.”

Santa Barbara is the birthplace of Earth Day, and 2020 is the 51th anniversary of the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel that launched the modern environmental movement.

The first Earth Day was held in 1970, a year after that catastrophe.

Since 1970, the CEC has pioneered environmental solutions and programs in areas with the biggest impact on climate change – most notably solar energy, transportation, resilient food systems and reduction of single-use plastic.

The organization has been at the forefront of environmental change, progression and sustainability. 

Fortson said the CEC is a stalwart in the environmental movement across Santa Barbara and other places, with innovations, cutting-edge ideas and technology “that moved our region into better energy usage related to solar, getting us off fossil fuels and electric vehicles — you name it CEC has been there.”

Eric Cárdenas, the chief operating officer of LOACOM, also served as an emcee on a historic day.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the gathering is celebrated as a movement, a way to activate change, and preserve the beauty of the planet for people and animals, Cárdenas said.

Cárdenas, a new parent, dedicated Earth Day 2020 to his 11-month-old son.

“This Earth Day celebration is dedicated from me to him,” he said in opening remarks.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.