Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth Day : forty years later

The very first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, a historic event which kicked off the modern environmental movement and was one of the factors that inspired the founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The idea for Earth Day came from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. He was troubled that the degrading state of the environment was not an issue in national politics, despite the widespread concern of citizens.

In November of 1969, just a few months before Earth Day, the New York Times published a story by Gladwin Hill, in which he reported that "rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam." (*1)

The first Earth Day was a huge success. "20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment....Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values." (*2)

Senator Nelson commented that "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself." (*1)

But a lot has happened since the inception of Earth Day 40 years ago. Today, being "green" is a fashion statement, not an environmental commitment. And true environmentalists are having a hard time swallowing the idea of Earth Day in it's present context.

Sharon Astyk (author of Depletion and Abundance), earlier today blogged her views on the matter, saying that "I'm a skeptic about Earth Day and Earth Hour and anything that has you be green for a weekend or a day or an hour. Yes, I'm the original poster girl for 'your personal choice makes an impact' - but not one day a year. And yes, teaching kids about the basics of environmentalism is awesome, and having festivals is good. But the truth is that I don't see it sticking. I see Earth Day as the new Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment." (*3)

Taking those thoughts one step further, Alex Steffen (executive editor of the online magazine Worldchanging), commented in 2007 that "Earth Day, which every year has become less and less the revolutionary event it once was, seems this year to have entered a new phase of meaninglessness. Indeed, this year it appears to have gone into a form of retrograde motion and move actively away from the concept of comprehensive sustainability that drives all rational environmentalism. In short, Earth Day has served its time, and must go." (*4)

These authors make valid points, and I agree with them for the most part. However, unlike Steffen, I don't think that Earth Day has served it's time. I think the fundamental idea behind Earth Day is still strong, but it somehow got washed into the stagnant puddle of the socio-political river and been buried by the accumulated slime of greenwash over the years. People have forgotten what a powerful impact this day once had on our society, and now see this historic event as a profit-maximizing opportunity. But I'm still young enough to be optimistic, and I have hope that people will overcome the false facade invented by corporate marketing strategists, and find true meaning in the spirit of the day.

The point is, we don't live on this planet for only one day a year, so maybe we should start acting like it.


And since I didn't have a picture in this entry to keep you interested, here's a completely pointless quiz on the history of Earth Day, like the sticker you used to get from the dentists office to keep you coming back.

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