It’s time to retire Earth Day

Gary Wilson

Commentary

It’s two days from another Earth Day and you can put me in the camp that believes the day has long outlived its usefulness.

Others are more blunt, as an I hate Earth Day Google search illustrates.

Why spurn a day designed to put a spotlight on Earth’s environmental problems?

It’s simple: Earth Day long ago devolved to the point where it reeks of symbolism over substance.

Corporations use it as another selling opportunity. This year Walmart has an Earth Month Music Special featuring Alison Krauss. They’ve also featured items like recycled flip flops. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either product, but the giant retailer’s message is still consume, not conserve.

Walmart exists to get us to consume mass quantities of its products and a little Earth Day window dressing won’t change that.

But Walmart is an easy target.

What about us? Are we any better than Walmart?

Is our priority consuming or conserving? Are we honest with ourselves when we examine our habits?

It’s always best to first look in your own backyard when you ask a question like that so I checked the Earth Day plans of my town, Oak Park, Ill.

Regular readers may remember Oak Park from my commentary last year when it promoted the 350 carbon emission awareness program. The commentary illustrated the contradiction between what the village says – be aware of carbon emissions – and what the village does – promote the use of cars in its traffic management decisions.

Sure enough, Oak Park is having an Earth-Fest in conjunction with Earth Day. I wouldn’t expect less from a town with no shortage of green ego, deserved or not.

The event’s site says it will feature “the local, sustainable food movement… and eco-focused vendors.”  Fifty vendors will participate and sponsors are Citibank, Waste Management and others.

Despite being a village sanctioned event it is focused around vendors. Vendors sell things, which means the emphasis is on consumption – not conservation. That’s typical Earth Day fare so I inquired about the contradiction.

“The reality is that we live in a consumer-driven society and that isn’t going to change,” says event organizer Maria Ornesto-Moran, owner of Green Home Experts.

“The purpose of Earth-Fest is to give consumers information that will empower them to make informed decisions about what and how much they are consuming,” she said.

That sounds good but it’s really doing the minimum, if that.

Like treading water, it will keep you afloat for a while but it won’t get you to shore. I doubt many experts think our consumption rates are sustainable, green products or not.

The incrementalists are similar. They believe every little step like recycling, using rain barrels and driving a hybrid car like a Prius will eventually put us over the sustainability hump.

They perceive they’ve done their part and will tell you so- at least the Prius owners will.

Only good can come from recycling and rain barrel use but those are safe enterprises and don’t require much of us.

As for the hybrid Prius owners, they’re good too but I’d be more impressed if they told me that they’d gone from two cars to one. That would be something to crow about.

And why do hybrid owners not buy another one, as a recent survey showed, when it’s time? Was the first one about symbolism?

I hope not.We already have plenty of symbolism.

How do we get past Earth Day stagnation and complacency?

Earth Day was a landmark event 42 years ago. The saying was “it raised our consciousness.” We were oblivious to the damage we were doing and needed a slap in the face. Earth Day helped do that and we are forever beholden to its founder, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson.  But it’s time to move on.

We need to honor Earth Days of the past then relegate them to the history books because clinging to them is holding us back.

We need Earth Day’s successor.

It should be an event that can’t be hijacked by corporations for marketing purposes, one that takes us out of our recycling and hybrid car comfort zones. It should ask us to sacrifice (politicians won’t do that). Its tenets would be buy less and use less because we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Tech gurus Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t become icons by resting on the laurels of their early creations. We shouldn’t rest on the accomplishments of Earth Days long past.

Let’s hope for a successor event that will ask us to reflect on and be honest about our consumption decisions. One that will help us realize that Earth can provide everything we need, but not everything we want.

Until that successor emerges,  I’ll skip Earth Day.

  • Harold

    Gary wrote: A collection of Earth Day shopping ads here.

    http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/blogs/giant-earth-day-sale-everything-must-go

    I’m with you on that one, Gary. But can you name ONE holiday that isn’t exploited?

  • Bob

    I don’t retirement is the answer. It works for so many who otherwise would not give the Planet a second thought.

    Sorta’ like receiving the appontment notice from your Dentist.

  • Bill Jebediah

    Dear Prius owners: hybrids are not more friendly to the environment. Your batteries are extremely toxic, and you pay a premium for the nickel in the battery to be mined and transported many thousands of miles. Every several years you must buy new batteries since they have a finite life span — a life span which is significantly shorter than gasoline or diesel engines. In the long run, hybrid cars don’t even save money on gas. Imagine you pay $25,000 for a hybrid. You could instead pay $10-12,000 for a small gasoline-powered car. How long will it take you to make up the difference in gas prices? Longer than you own the car. In fact, since you have to pay $7000 every few years for new batteries, likely you will never break even. Why not spend less and use those additional resources doing something positive for the environment? Mr. Wilson is right — hybrid cars are designed for fake, guilt-ridden enviro-types who want to feel good about themselves.

    Sincerely, Bill.

  • Gary Wilson

    A collection of Earth Day shopping ads here.

    http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/blogs/giant-earth-day-sale-everything-must-go

    My (least) favorite…Kelloggs using Earth Day to push Pop Tarts at kids. I don’t need to explain that, do I?

  • Mike

    I was young and spry on Earth Day One. And involved and worried things would get worse. Now I’m old and cynical. I’m hearing the young and spry now decrying the same things. However, though the Earth’s population has what, maybe doubled, since then, the US population nearly so, and most things are better – not perfect – not being fast tracked to total perfection – but much better than when I was young and spry.

  • Paul

    Gary, I can’t accept your arguments entirely. Yes, corporate AmeriKa will cynically usurp Earth Day for their own purposes, just as they do every event that could increase their profit margin. Just look at the circus they have made of Christmas, Easter, Independence Day, etc. I think the value of Earth Day is for younger and future generations to learn about what we are doing to Earth and learn some strategies to cope with our deteriorating planet. Hopefully, some of these youngsters will eventually be instrumental in changing the direction that humanity is taking.

    I firmly believe that had environmental consciousness not been promoted via Earth Day over the last 42 years we would be in even more dire straits.

  • Douglas A. DeVoid

    First Broadcast (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)about Earth Day in 1970

    Most people who are aware of Earth Day probably don’t know the great people who rose to the occasion to to protect our Earth. This year the theme of 2012 Earth Day is “Mobilize the Earth”
    Visit http://www.domesticcleanup.net/2012/04/earth-day-origin/ and hear Walter Cronkite speak in history of Earth Day!

  • Scoop

    At least some areas use it still for clean-up days in parks, pulling invasives, planting trees … get rid of it and you might get rid of those things and the media attention they draw.

  • Gary Wilson

    I’m not surprised by the responses, it’s tough to let go of important institutions like Earth Day.

    But sometimes we have to so we don’t get stuck in the past at the expense of the future.

    Maybe this will help.

    In 2008/9 General Motors had to restructure the company to survive. That meant discontinuing venerable and loved brands like Olds and Pontiac. It was tough but GM had to do it to make way for the Volt and cars that would appeal to the next generation of buyers. The fact that they waited so long contributed to the near demise of the company.

    To Karen’s point about making it better, that’s what I was trying to get at by suggesting a successor. Take the best of what Earth Day was and marry it with what it needs to be. Works for me as long as it places substance over symbolism.

    I also receive comments offline from folks who don’t want to be publicly identified with their comments

    One person “loved” the commentary and a colleague here in Chicago agreed with my premise but didn’t appreciate my tweak of Prius owners.

    If my writing does nothing else I hope it prompts you to think critically about the issue.

    And not to worry, I have no plans to write about Christmas or Memorial Day.

    Gary

  • Karen

    Yes, one of first times I disagree with Gary. Earth Day means much to me and I always find my own ways to celebrate and honor and serve. As Maggie wrote, let’s just find ways to celebrate it better! Gary? Others?

  • Maggie

    Should we also retire Memorial Day and Labor Day? Let’s just be better at celebrating Earth Day, not get rid of it.

  • Jo Anne

    This logic could also be used to retire Christmas and Hanukkah. With our new understanding of Climate Change, changes in Earth systems that support life and the increasing destruction caused by fossil fuel extraction with extreme technologies (fracking, mountain top removal and tar sands) coupled with population growth and demands of emerging growth around the world, we need renewed enthusiasm for Earth Day. Someone like you could use your commentary to lead rather than sabotage.

  • Harold

    This is one of the few times that I find myself in disagreement with Gary Wilson. Sure, many corporations will try to co-opt any green message–and it’s unfortunate that a number of political entities enable that–but there is still much good that results from Earth Day. It’s a chance for young people to pitch in around the country, from events as simple as picking up trash in parks, to planting trees and removing invasive species. Recycling is also an “easy” thing to support, but it, too, is a gateway event for many people. They need to grasp something simple before they will delve into the more complex issues. The challenge as I see it, is that we need to reinvigorate Earth Day–and our entire environmental consciousness–in order to get young people truly involved in the urgent environmental issues we are facing. Just like we need to fight corporate media’s attempt to dominate public perceptions, we need to stand up to all corporations which put their short-term, short-sighted aspirations ahead of the public good. We need to get people to acknowledge that we need to make sacrifices, but we also need to get people to think of the big picture and to think long-term. Perhaps the greatest failing amongst the environmental community is the failure to acknowledge that overpopulation is our greatest threat. Nearly EVERY environmental problem is rooted in overpopulation. Unless we reverse this devastating trend soon, I’m afraid that there is very little hope for saving the planet as we know it. We’ve lost far too much already.

  • Michelle Hurd Riddick

    “safe enterprises that require little of us”— I love it!