Will a Real Earth Day Movement Please Stand Up?


Photo credit: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Okay, so it's Earth Day -- the day where environmentalism is celebrated with TV specials, special product offers, and well-intentioned community greening efforts. These are all nice things (but if I have to delete one more 'Great story idea for Earth Day' pitches for eco-friendly beauty products, so help me ...). Sort of. I mean, I'm glad that a few companies are taking the effort to market their products to an audience that cares about the planet -- it's better that there's been a mild consumer shift towards organic, fair trade, and ethical products, and that they can be promoted with a topical tie-in one day a year. But 98% of this junk obscures what the original Earth Day was all about: Taking to the streets with fellow citizens and demanding real reform and environmental protections. By 1969, concerns over DDT, an oil spill of the Santa Barbara coast, and a river catching fire in Ohio had all contributed to a growing outrage amongst Americans about the way that the environment was being compromised by industry. Here's an excerpt from a front page New York Times article that year:

"Rising concern about the "environmental crisis" is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam...a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in'...coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned ..."
And we all know what happened next: Nelson's 'teach-in' spread quickly, and 20 million Americans -- one in five Americans at that point -- took to the streets to demand change. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, was loud, raucous, and purposeful. And it inspired real change: In response to the unrest and outpouring of support for reform, Congress, along with President Nixon, reacted by enacting a strong Clean Air Act and founding the Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, our Earth Day more resembles a toothless, consumerist Hallmark holiday like Father's Day or Halloween. And I'm not even sure we're better off that it exists at all -- under the current Earth Day paradigm, people can watch an cable TV special or buy an organic t-shirt one day of the year, and feel like they've participated. Sorry, not helping. Not really. The environmental challenges we face are too great to stop there.

No, it's like Bill McKibben said in a recent speech at Powershift: We need a grassroots movement to match the scale of the original Earth Day if we hope to combat the entrenched fossil fuel interests and inspire meaningful action from lawmakers on the hill.

Given the scope of the environmental problems we face today in contrast to those that roused the nation in 1969 -- global climate change vs some polluted waterways, the biggest offshore oil spill in US history vs one that would barely fill a swimming pool -- it should indeed be possible to build such a movement. We should be outraged that polluting industries are making themselves rich off the backs of the environment and depriving future generations of a livable climate -- and that politicians in Washington have taken the corporations' side.

If you really want to make Earth Day count, do what the youth of Powershift did -- take to the streets. Call for action. Help build awareness; help build a movement. And don't bother with the organic cotton designer clothes.

More on Earth Day
Does Earth Day Matter? The Climate Rally on the National Mall Offers an Answer
Earth Day 2010 - Time for Visions, Visionaries and Volunteers
Green Bloggers Speak: Does Earth Day Matter?

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