Wednesday, April 22, 2009

If Earth Day is every day, do we still need an Earth Day?

Today is Earth Day--a date set aside to pay special attention to our environment, a day with roots in the activism of the late '60s and early '70s but that has since spread to be celebrated in countries all across the globe. Which is a good thing, since this whole "Earth" thing is somewhat important for everyone living on it, y'know?

The first Earth Day looked a lot different than it does now, at least in the US. On this day in 1970, an estimated 20 million people took to streets, campuses, and town centers in one of the largest demonstrations in our country's history. As told by Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker:
The first celebration of Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was a raucously exuberant affair. In New York, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic. People picnicked on the sidewalk; dead fish were dragged through midtown; and Governor Nelson Rockefeller rode a bicycle across Prospect Park. Students in Richmond, Virginia, handed out bags of dirt (to represent the “good earth”); demonstrators in Washington poured oil onto the sidewalk in front of the Interior Department (to protest recent oil spills); and in Bloomington, Indiana, women dressed as witches threw birth-control pills into the crowd (no one was quite sure why).
Spurred on by Wisconsin's own Senator Gaylord Nelson and the man he hired to get the event coordinated, Denis Hayes, the original Earth Day exceeded even their expectations (for an informative look at the history of the modern movement, check out the documentary "Earth Days," which I had the chance to check out when it came to the Wisconsin Film Festival). Since then, awareness of the many and varied environmental issues facing our planet has only spread. It's not as though no one had been thinking or attempting to do anything about any of those problems before, but since that day in 1970, environmentalism has definitely gone mainstream.

And as with anything that does so, there have been ups and downs for the movement along the way. While we have seen an increased emphasis on creating products and services that are biodegradable, reusable, renewable, and non-toxic, plenty of companies have also used this sort of "green chic" solely as a means for cashing in, relying on what's called "greenwashing" to sell products that aren't really all that eco-friendly.

In a very cynical sense, I guess those of us serious about environmental action should be glad that corporations see this has something popular enough to even just imitate. It has also meant, at very least, that the percentage of products that actually are quite green has gone up considerably.

But there is growing discord from some corners of the movement over the commoditization of Earth Day and the green movement. And rightfully so. That anyone could see these things merely as means to a profit, and not as something to be done with care, forethought, and good intention, is fairly insulting to anyone who's worked hard for the cause.

Still, the overwhelming consensus seems to be that we need the holiday now more than ever, to continue building real awareness of the issues, to have a special day set aside to recognize the efforts of those people who work year-round to find practical, revolutionary solutions to the problems we face, and to bring new people into the fold. (Grist has a great series of interviews with various environmentalists about their perceptions of the Earth Day holiday, and it's well worth a look.)

It's good that we have a far more progressive, environmentally aware administration in the White House now. It's good that more and more people are taking the issues of climate change, pollution, overpopulation, etc. far more seriously. It's good that we're able to find ways to combine economically viable business models with green practices. And it's good that we still take this day to remind ourselves of the struggle--all that we've accomplished, and how very much work remains to be done. Because we need all the encouragement and motivation we can get to tackle such a monumental and important issue.

Happy Earth Day, all. And keep fighting the good fight--all year round.


Anonymous said...

Earth day is a very important day for our Household. i take my oldest son to my parents and plant a tree, and then take a bike ride with our trailer that has a sign on it that says "Earth Day is Everyday!". i look forward to my sons getting older (3 and 2 months now) so they can help me with everyday Green projects. everyone should use re-usable grocery bags. they're strong, and hold more than a plastic bag, and aren't terrible for the environment.
On Earth Day, it's also important to note a few facts about Factory farming, and it's environmental impacts:

* During the past 15 years the number of hog farms in the United States dropped from 600,000 to 157,000, yet the number of hogs remains almost the same.

* In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 2 percent of the hog farms in the country produce over 46 percent of the total number of hogs.

* Ten large companies produce more than 90 percent of the nation's poultry.
* According to a 2006 U.N. report, the meat industry produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined

That's not to say that small family farms can't treat their livestock humanely, and limit the damage they do to the environment, but the numbers show that this is not happening. this is primarily what convinced me to dramatically change my diet 7 years ago. i recognize the health benefits of abstaining from animal products, and respect that the way we treat the least of us (animals) is the way that defines the society in which we live, but if we don't start severely limiting and find ways to reverse the damage that we're doing to this world, none of us will have a planet to live on.

/Rant over. Happy Earth Day!

Anonymous said...

oops, forgot to answer the question, hehe. if Earth Day is everyday, then yes, we still need an Earth Day! we need 364 more of them. but seriously, Earth day is like MLK day, or any other "Awareness" day.Yes, we should treat every day as an opportunity to make things better ( environmentally and racially), but having a nationally recognized day gives people an added opportunity to be confronted with facts, figures, and enthusiasm! it's a day that environmentally concsious people around the country/world can mark on their calender ( if it's not already there), and band together to amplify the message.

lukas said...

and in Bloomington, Indiana, women dressed as witches threw birth-control pills into the crowd (no one was quite sure why).If I"m remembering this correctly, according to the book, the Man from Clear Lake (A Gaylord Nelson biography), they were protesting Senator Nelson's closer examination of the Pill (out of suspicion that he was trying to undermine or block it). "Free our bodies, free our minds," etc. Nelson defended his actions saying that there were health risks associated w/the Pill and that users should at least be aware of them.

Hathery said...

Your blog sure looks perty.

xoff said...

Grist, the online environmental magazine, said "Screw Earth Day," let's do it every day, etc.

They asked me, as Gaylord Nelson's biographer, for my take. Here it is.

Emily said...

XedgeX69 - Thanks for the stats, and way to go with the Earth Day celebrations with your kids! That's some of the most important work that needs doing.

lukas - Interesting. Thanks for the background.

Hathery - Heh, glad you dig it! Thank your hubby again for recommending the designer.

xoff - Wow, color me a little embarrassed for completely not noticing that you were one of the people Grist tapped for that series. Great article! Well said and well written/researched.

The Lost Albatross