Forecasts for the 42nd annual celebration of Earth Day were grim. Indeed, there was an undeniable irony that an event meant to celebrate the Earth would be brought to the brink of cancelation by Mother Nature. In fairness, though, the speakers, small audience, and—most notably—the staff of the Earth Day Network marshaled on, making every effort to enjoy the event they had worked so hard to make a reality.
The harsh conditions and thin crowd of spectators, however, raised a difficult question: What is the real goal of once-annual celebrations like Earth Day?
Two years ago—at the same event, but under much more pleasant conditions—I concluded that Earth Day was "about showing you care, finding community, and speaking out loud—it's the assertion that the values of environmentalism are important and those that hold them are not alone." Of course, a lot has happened since then.
Though the morale of the environmental movement was far from upbeat in 2010—remember, COP15 had just ended disappointingly, an energy bill had failed to gain ground in Congress, and the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform had begun leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico—there was some guarded optimism. The sentiment that day, it seemed, was that, with a decision on health care reform near and a symbol of the dangers of fossil fuels burning in the Gulf, our representatives would finally be forced to address the critical issues of energy and environmental policy.
This year, as I stood shivering under a nearly empty press tent, I couldn't help but feel a bit more cynical. Though recovery in the Gulf has progressed, several alarming questions remain unanswered, BP has yet to face civil damages, and evidence has emerged suggesting this one big spill is hardly unique.
More troubling, however, is how divisive environmental issues have become in the rhetorical landscape. Looking for some evidence of how presidential candidates treated Earth Day in past election years, I stumbled upon a series of articles from 1996. Less than two decades ago, newspapers actually felt the need to warn voters that national Republican leaders had advised candidates to "green up their image by participating in public tree plantings and visiting zoos" on Earth Day. The New York Times reported that Democrats and Republicans were both scrambling to defend their voting records as the "environment [looked to] become a critical campaign issue." Imagine that! The point, of course, is that not too long ago, Earth Day was important to politicians as a means of enforcing environmental credibility.
Maybe it was the weather, but this year it seemed as though many politicians were actively avoiding the events taking place on their very doorstep.
Indeed, in this election candidates have felt free to call for explicitly anti-environment actions like the severe restriction—if not the complete elimination—of the EPA, an organization that is intimately connected to the first Earth Day and the modern environmental movement. ""Right now," explained William Ruckelshaus, who first headed the organization when it was founded under Richard Nixon, "the EPA is under sharp criticism partially because it is not as obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them."
It's a compelling argument because it offers a clear solution: To silence critics and reinvigorate environmentalism in politics we simply need to tell a better story about the dangers weighing down on the planet. In fact, the discourse has become much more insidious by creating a false dichotomy that puts protection of the environment in opposition to prosperity and economic growth.
This video is extreme, but it summarizes many of the talking points that appear frequently in the national dialog.
It's a not a big leap to argue that silence on Earth Day is, in some ways, conceding to this idea. At the very least, it does nothing to counter it.
As the festivities on the National Mall were beginning, I thought of this and asked my question via Twitter: "Earth Day events and celebrations are fun, but what's the goal?"
@TreeHugger goal is to make people aware of earth's fragile state and how to be smart stewards for the environment— SimplifySaysThoreau (@simplifythoreau) April 22, 2012
The responses were great: Honest, insightful, some simple, and some nuanced. And, as I watched them roll in, I found myself nodding in agreement.
It's hard, after all, to stay cynical when you're surrounded by so much excitement and enthusiasm—even if the weather is miserable—and that, certainly, is what the Earth Day Network was providing. Sure we were wet, sure we were shivering, but everyone on stage delivered their message with the same animation that I had witnessed two years prior in much more cooperative conditions.
Playing frisbee in the rain at the 42nd Earth Day celebration on the National Mall.
Even the small crowd started to take the form of a metaphor: The dedicated few who push on for their cause in spite of adversity, making do even at the darkest (wettest) moments.
There is evidence, too, that the situation is not as dire as it seems: National surveys are, increasingly, finding that Americans recognize the real problems facing the environment and want to take action to remedy them.
Earth Day, certainly, has a role in this. Sure, environmentalism for a day might be for amateurs but people face a lot of problems and negotiate many distractions. In a battle for attention, an internationally-recognized holiday is a powerful weapon.
So, what is the goal of a celebration like Earth Day? It's hard to say, but personally, I still like to think of it as a reminder for the busiest, most easily distracted, but most well intentioned among us to take a momentary pause and think about what is fundamentally important—an idea that was eloquently summarized yesterday by a not surprising source:
April 22, 2012 #EarthDay. Founded 1970. The year after we walked on Moon, looked back home, & discovered Earth for first time— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) April 22, 2012
The last 42 years have proven that Earth Day—as an event, as a celebration, and as an institution—is durable. Every year it reminds us that, as a movement, environmentalism is holding strong. And this is a good thing. The trouble now is that, increasingly, we cannot say the same thing about the environment itself.