This past weekend was Earth Day. For those of you out there that noticed, I'm curious as to what you did in order to commemorate this. But for the vast majority of North Americans, for me Earth Day came and went without any special attention. In this post, I will explore Earth Day, past a present, keeping focus on the significance of the event.
Established in the United States in 1970, Earth Day was a political reaction to a limited concern for the environment. Largely supported by scientists and fronted by activists, the first Earth Day expressed the style of frustrated yet peaceful sentiments associated with the antiwar movement.
Earth Day became dormant for two decades, but when it came back, the movement was largely resurrected as an international one, rather than a local or national one. Since 1990 the movement has grown. No longer is it a fringe movement with radical ideologies, it is now mainstream expression of solidarity with the planet.
The movement has become very popular in North America. Children study it in school, stories appear on the evening news, and people gather around the water cooler to talk about the fact that they considered riding their bike to work. While the movement has certainly brought a "greener" lexicon into the public sphere, not everyone believes that Earth Day is positive. There are four key criticisms of the movement that I have identified. Let's go through them briefly.
Firstly, there is the Bright Green Environmental Movement. Noted Bright Green Environmentalists suggest that we can "neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability". In an article for WorldChanging, Alex Steffen writes: "We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political
willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal
characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice. We need to remake
the systems in which live. We need to redesign civilization". While this could theoretically be a good idea, it has two significant flaws. It both promotes capitalism as the saviour and it de-democratises the movement. Neither is, in the long-term, well-suited to handling the most serious crisis our the history of the planet.
Another criticism is that Earth Day has largely been "Greenwashed". As I'm sure many of you have noticed, it is hard to turn on the television, walk by a billboard, or open the newspaper without seeing something about Earth Day. That said, it's interesting that virtually all the mentions being made are coming from corporations. It is certainly not surprising though, given that it's something that people can relate to: an antecedent. As a point of reference, particularly one with a lot of social weight, it is easy for marketing firms to make commercials that are green. These advertisements generally appeal to the masses for two reasons: because we feel guilty for destroying the environment and because we want to be perceived as environmentally conscious.
Moreover, it seems to trivialise the environment as a legitimate concern worthy of time and resources. Much like International Women's Day or Black History Month, Earth Day attracts our attention for a short period of time (often in an unproductive or maligned way) without changing either our thoughts or our actions. Some environmentalists have gone so far as to say that the green movement paradoxically suffers as a result of Earth Day. This would be a tough position to prove, but I can see the merit in the statement. The green movement, for one, is not a movement: it's a collection of thousands of them. Something rather monolithic and corporate, like Earth Day, attempting to speak for all "greens" oversimplifies the movement.
As mentioned earlier, the revival of the movement in 1990 was significant for rebranding the movement as International. Many environmentalists, myself included, are opposed to Earth Day become one large movement. While all ecosystems are connected, it is important to attempt to solve each problem at the local level, using the democratic and populist mechanisms of the particular jurisdiction.
Together, these four interconnected factors make Earth Day potentially harmful propaganda. I think that the spirit of the first Earth Day (1970) has been lost over the past four decades. We would be much better off if we got back to the issues, back to paying sustained attention, and back to voting with our actions rather than our wallets.