Wired About World Environment Day


W.E.D. symbol. Image credit:UNSW, WED Network
Happy Belated World Environment Day, 2009! (The official date was 5 June 2009)
First things first: if you've got a Twitter account (or if you've been on the fence and need a good excuse to sign up), go to @UNEPandYou and become a follower. You just may be the one to help 100,000 trees get planted.

Now, let's clear something up-or try to. World Environment Day (WED) isn't, of course, Earth Day, though both date back to about the same period. WED, always celebrated on June 5, was established by the UN General Assembly in 1972; Earth Day officially kicked off its annual April 22 efforts to celebrate and raise awareness in 1970, due to the efforts of US Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Nor is WED the UN's own official Earth Day, celebrated on or about March 20 every year since 1969.)
Speaking as someone who has never met a birthday cake he didn't like, all these officially sanctioned days to pay attention to one little, fragile planet-one's that's probably a universal freak because of its capacity to support life--is enough to make me go blue-green with envy.

Of course, that's kind of the point: the Earth is unique-and currently so threatened-that it deserves and needs all the official days it can get. The old cliché "Let's make every day Earth Day!" is a lot like "Let's keep the spirit of the holidays alive throughout the year!"-except that the latter is much closer to being a cultural reality, if only in terms of consumption.

It might have slipped your notice, but the six weeks or so between Earth Day and World Environment Day haven't exactly evolved into the environmental equivalent of the Holiday Shopping Season between Thanksgiving (or has is now been pushed back to Labor Day?) and Christmas. And, speaking more spiritually, we're not even close to having a Green Advent season, so I won't begrudge the planet a little redundancy in its marketing efforts.

Besides, the two days are different enough to let us draw useful distinctions between them, and even plan for a day when we could actually see them functioning as consciousness-and-activity-raising bookends for an annual period of recommitting our communal short attention span to our shared home. (Maybe we need a Household Chore Wheel taped up to the planetary fridge for the off months?)

Earth Day started as a truly grassroots movement in the US and then aptly spread worldwide. Despite some truth to criticisms that it has lost its teeth in the decades since, especially as it became a platform for "green" festivals and greenwashing sponsors, it still has a populist appeal and aura. No one officially "owns" Earth Day-though many sponsors (what would it mean to actually sponsor the Earth for a day?) have tried (and will keep trying).

In contrast, WED was established by the UN specifically to advance its own environmental efforts. Each year since 1974 WED has had an official theme, usually built around a worldwide environmental challenge or crisis that the UN felt needed to be addressed. While the day has official host countries (this year it's Mexico) and host cities on many continents (North American honors this year go to Omaha, Nebraska), it's the UN's show, and their specific agenda is to use WED to:

1. Give a human face to environmental issues;
2. Empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development;
3. Promote an understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes towards environmental issues;
4. Advocate partnership which will ensure all nations and peoples enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

(You'll forgive me-and if you don't my bosses will-for taking a moment to point out those agenda items synch nicely with Earthwatch's mission to create a more sustainable future through citizen science and partnerships with local communities. Check out some of the ways you can get involved on projects that need your help here.

This year's WED theme is "Your Planet Needs You-UNite to Combat Climate Change", and it's as good as any they've had since 1972, even with that cutesy "UNite" stuff. Sadly, a look at the day's history reveals just how long the UN has (rightly) felt this issue needed this world media platform:

* 1989 - Global Warming; Global Warning (the first explicit appearance in the theme's language)
* 1991 - Climate Change: Need for Global Partnership
* 2007 - Melting Ice - a Hot Topic? (One wonders about that question mark....)
* 2008 - Kick The Habit - Towards A Low Carbon Economy

The lyrics may have been changing but the song's the same: the UN clearly sees global warming and curbing greenhouse gas emissions as the issue we need to rally around. It makes sense to keep hitting this note, especially as part of the lead-up to this December's world Climate Conference in Copenhagen.
But if you're feeling depressed that we're not gaining much traction on that issue, you can take heart from the progress made in the issues raised by two other past themes of WED:

* 1977 - Ozone Layer Environmental Concern; Lands Loss and Soil Degradation (Okay, not so much progress on the two secondary themes of this year...)
* 1983 - Managing and Disposing Hazardous Waste: Acid Rain and Energy

You can also take heart from the following recent accomplishments in the realm of using worldwide media platforms to bring about environmental victories:

* True to its own Earth Day promise, Disney says it's going to use a portion of its ticket sales that day for its film Earth to plant 2.7 million trees in Brazil. (Here's an accountability idea: if you're one of the people who bought a ticket specifically to help this effort, like I did, why not also commit to sending one email per month to Disney and/or their planting partner, the Nature Conservancy, asking them how it's going and seeing what else you can do to help? Try Heidi Trotta (heidi.trotta@disney.com) at Disney or Nicole Levins (nlevins@tnc.org) at the Nature Conservancy. This is a big, wonderful promise-it deserves, big, wonderful, verifiable follow-up.)

* If you're one of the digerati (which you are, because you're a Treehugger!), you've already heard about this, but it's worth repeating: 1 person's idea, 140 characters, $250,000 raised to date for charity: water. Twestival may be pointing the way for the digital generation to shake the slacktivism charge once and for all. And, while you can apply this model to any good cause, the potential this creates for non-profits to further decrease their use of direct-mail fundraising is a green victory regardless of the nature of the recipients. (You've signed up to follow UNep by this point, right?)

So while global warming may be turning into the perpetual theme for WED, and while we're all justifiably a bit cynical of-or just overwhelmed by-big media messaging on the environment, whatever the source, take the opportunities presented by this World Environment Day to remember that individuals and authentic grassroots communities do have tools they've never had before to be integral players-even leaders-of these large-scale initiatives.

After all, Omaha didn't end up as WED's official North American host city because the official Powers That Be there wanted it, but because of a group of committed community activists with some good ideas, a lot of determination,--and some broadband.

Wired About World Environment Day was
by: George Grattan
Additional posts on WED.
Twittering for Trees and World Environment Day
World Environment Day and an Interview with UNEP's Achim Steiner ...
Youtube Japan Goes Green On World Environment Day

Tags: Conservation | Ecology | United Nations

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