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Making Earth Day Matter

Making Earth Day Matter

Earth Day is nearing 50, yet it seems to have been more impactful in its formative years. What needs to happen for “the largest civic-focused day of action in the world” to be more than a huge empty gesture?

     
Making Earth Day Matter
image by: lightkeeper

To hear the Earth Day Network tell it, the world population is on board with protecting the environment. Whereas the first Earth Day—April 22, 1970—“activated 20 million Americans from all walks of life and is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement, [… m]ore than 1 billion people now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.”

Two years ago, Gina McCarthy, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told Popular Science Magazine that Earth Day is more important today than it was at its inception. “[W]e really have lost sight of pollution now,” she said. “You can’t see it, taste it, or smell it, like the way you used to. But science is telling us that one out of four people in the world die prematurely because of environmental exposures. Science is telling us that the challenges and the public health impacts are still there. So we have to get people to understand that while you can’t see it or smell it or taste it, pollution is still there and it’s impacting our public health and our kids’ future.”

But one year later, it was Scott Pruitt who helmed the EPA. The recipient of over $200,000 in campaign contributions from Big Oil, Pruitt does not subscribe to the nearly unanimous scientific consensus that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is a primary contributor to global warming; and as Oklahoma’s attorney general he sued the EPA over a dozen times in an effort to subvert environmental protections enacted by the Obama administration.

But while appointing Pruitt as the chief environmental officer of the world’s biggest economy and second-biggest polluter (China overtook the U.S. in 2007) shows blatant disdain for the Earth’s health, it’s not like things were otherwise trending in the right direction since that first Earth Day. According to the EPA, CO2 emissions have increased 90% since 1970; and in 2014, during the Obama administration and while McCarthy was heading the EPA, the Washington Post reported that the U.S., “one of the few bright spots for [worldwide] climate-change policy in recent years,” reversed course, with CO2 emissions increasing by 2% over the prior year.

In the midst of such goings-on, is it meaningful that (according to the Earth Day Network) 1 out of every 7.5 people on the planet participates in Earth Day activities? Does Earth Day actually make a difference, or is it just an empty symbol to make us feel better about ourselves?

Once upon a time, Earth Day certainly did matter. As Nicholas Lemann documented in a 2013 New Yorker article (heavily based on Adam Rome’s book The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation), just seven months after Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed the idea of holding “national teach-ins […] for the problem of the environment,” the first Earth Day generated 12,000 events nationwide, many on high-school and college campuses with more than 35,000 speakers. The nationally syndicated television program Today devoted 10 hours of coverage to Earth Day. Congress even took the day off, with two-thirds of its members speaking at Earth Day events. Eight months later the EPA was created, and within three years Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973; and for the remainder of the decade, Republicans and Democrats alike supported progressive environmental policies.

But that was then. In 2010, as Earth Day turned 40, even with Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, there was not enough legislative support to bring a comprehensive energy bill—including a cap on carbon emissions and renewable energy standards, the two main ways governments can combat global warming—up for a vote.

It is political realities such as this that led Katie Herzog to write in Grist—a publication whose raison d’être is environmental activism—a 2015 article entitled “Why Earth Day Doesn’t Matter.” Her diagnosis of the problem: follow the money.

[W]hy was the first Earth Day effective when the 45th promises to be just another day of feel-good fairs and corporate green-washing? Well, it was a different era. Back then, mass demonstrations actually made a difference, which was apparent from the successes of the anti-war and civil rights movements. Today, people still take to the streets—the People’s Climate March last fall brought out a record 400,000 activists—but political leaders are more willing to ignore them. And why is that? Well, are you rich? No? In that case, you just don’t matter that much. […]

And where does that money come from? Rich people, corporations, special interest groups, and super PACs who buy influence and rarely prioritize the environment over profit.

In such a rigged system, Earth Day doesn’t stand a chance, and so this widely celebrated international phenomenon has lost its relevance. It is a Band-Aid, a pat on the back, a Facebook like. It’s dumping a bucket of ice water over your head for ALS or wearing a pink ribbon for breast cancer. It’s nothing more than a symbol. We don’t need Earth Day or Earth Month or even Earth Year: What we need is for those in power to stop working for industry and start working for the people.

Making that happen is a hell of a lot easier said than done, but you can take responsibility for you. When you vote for an individual candidate just because of party affiliation even when he/she is weak on the environment, you’re part of the problem. When you buy goods and services from companies with bad environmental practices, you’re part of the problem. And staying silent about businesses or politicians that are not doing enough to protect the environment certainly isn’t part of the solution.

Your individual efforts may not make a difference. In March 2014 I wrote an article in praise of plastic bans, and since then I have repeatedly called out government officials in my home city of Long Beach, CA, for doing nothing on this front since implementing a ban on plastic bags in 2011. Now, another four years have gone by, and they’ve done absolutely nothing along these lines. It’s not because they don’t know it’s a problem; they simply don’t care enough, perhaps because they don’t think their idleness loses them enough votes to make an electoral difference.

So I’m shaming them again here, because it’s what I can do. I publicly call out local businesses and complain to management for bad environmental practices such as automatically putting plastic straws in glasses of water without being asked, because it’s what I can do. I use social media to share articles from other sources (such as the Los Angeles Times), because it’s what I can do. I don’t buy bottled water. I often bring my own reusable cup and utensils with me to events where I know otherwise I would use disposable plastic. Etc.

Those everyday practices matter more than whether you take part in Earth Day activities. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter. Quite the contrary. Earth Day is all about raising environmental awareness—and God knows we need more of that. But unless that annual day of awareness translates into our everyday life—the products we consume, the resources we preserve, the people we put in office—all the talk and ceremony in the world won’t make a difference to the fate of our planet.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Tuesday, May 1, 2018