Earth Day is like Valentine’s Day for environmentalists – fun, but over-commercialized, over-simplified, and highlighting something that’s supposed to be year-round anyway. While I acknowledge the role that Earth Day has played in the modern environmental movement since its debut in 1970, it’s personally not very important to me. In fact, it encompasses a lot of the issues I have with the stereotype of “environmentalism” that we fall so easily into. While most of these messages don’t come from mainstream environmental groups, but from media outlets trying to get on the Earth Day bandwagon, they still reflect on the movement as a whole. Despite that, I still feel that Earth Day is a good opportunity to think about one’s habits in a larger context.
First, Earth Day can serve as an excuse to harangue people about the evils of “destroying the earth,” especially by people who haven’t thought through their positions very well. The first time I experienced this was in my high school’s environmental club. Although our main duty was washing the cans and bottles to go to the recycling center, we also had the opportunity to organize the school’s Earth Day celebration. I don’t remember what happened the rest of the day – probably showing movies – but the one event that stuck in my mind was my friend getting up on stage, pointing a finger at the crowd, and saying, “You are the ones responsible for destroying nature.” Even in high school, I realized what a horrible message that was, from both a moral and communications point of view. Thankfully, this tendency has mostly faded, but it still pops up when we focus on potential horrific futures rather than solutions. I also see this attitude in Internet comment threads on Grist and Treehugger, often with a whiff of “people get what they deserve” when something bad is associated with it.
On a more positive but still unhelpful note, language around Earth Day tends to reduce environmentalism into just being about “the earth” and “nature” as vague entities. All apple pie and motherhood, the images aren’t specific enough to inspire action. More importantly, much of the language leaves people out of the impacts side of the equation, making Earth Day all about what “we” are doing to “the Earth.” It categorizes anyone who is traditionally associated with wilderness, like Native peoples in the Arctic or rainforest, as part of nature, ignoring their unique cultures and development. On the other hand, it leaves out the impacts on “normal” people, including urban children suffering from asthma, farmers whose crops are being ruined by the effects of climate change, and shrimpers in the Gulf Coast who are pulling up seafood with missing eyes. While I care deeply about polar bears and whales, I believe that if we fix the environmental problems that affect people first and foremost, the rest will follow.
More recently, Earth Day has become a way to sell more stuff. Target is giving out free reusable bags (to hold more stuff from Target, of course), as is Kelloggs and Wegmans. Whole Foods has a contest for a year’s worth of cleaning supplies. Chipolte will give you a free burrito if you buy one of their recycled lunch bags. Barnes and Noble’s website, BN.com, has 20% off of “Earth-friendly” toys. Honestly, at this point, I don’t think anyone who actually uses reusable bags needs another one. (On a more positive, less consumptive note, the National Parks are free all week starting today too.) While I do believe that we can vote with our dollar and ethical consumerism has its place, buying or getting “stuff” for free for the sake of doing so rather than because you need it is never a step forward. My friend from grad school, Danny, has a scathingly funny poem about the dangers of this mindset.
Related to this point, Earth Day is now presented as an opportunity for people to take “a few small steps,” many of which make little difference. The epitome of this is the plastic bag issue. Yes, using fewer plastic bags is good. But focusing on this small action tends to foster the attitude I heard from my fellow students in college who proudly held up the fact that they recycled as their sole environmental credential. Instead of picking away at little habits, we need to present a vision of a sustainable future that people can truly see themselves participating in. We need to change the fundamental narrative of how people view their own life in comparison to the “good life.”
This Earth Day, I’d like it to be a day of reflection rather than consumption. If you want to make changes to your lifestyle, I suggest looking at it as a whole. Think about how you spend your time and money and if it reflects your values. Instead of picking up that bookmark made of wildflower seeds (which I totally gave into yesterday at work, to be honest), start planning a garden that you can tend and harvest from all summer. Go to your local farmers’ market and start up a conversation with the seller, finding out what you can about the foodshed of your area. Get your bike tuned up so that you can regularly replace car rides and experience your neighborhood in a new way. Spend this Earth Day planning so that you can actually celebrate it every day.
Have you celebrated Earth Day in the past? Are you planning on it this year – why or why not?