Once I started to honestly contemplate the issue at hand, a tiny wave of anxiety came over me. I’d sat down ready to list all the reasons why Earth Day Matters, but none came. None that I believed in wholeheartedly. OK, the commemorative day is certainly a useful tool for organizing events, and a great time to trot out corporate responsibility efforts. It might gently tug on the consciences of the aware-but-unconverted, and could conceivably be a revelation for the few hundred people who haven’t yet heard how fashionable it is to be green. Oh, and kids. Maybe for some children Earth Day could be a first exposure to environmentalism, as it was for me. Even though I’d been playing outside, gardening, and helping Mom pick up organic meat and eggs at an Amish farm by age 11, Earth Day sort of put it all together, gave it a brand.
Today, I’m not sure that brand carries the same cache. At a time when every magazine from Vanity Fair to St. Louis Monthly has a regular green issue — wait, scratch that. The green issue craze might be on the bust end of its bubble now that Vanity Fair is nixing its own after acknowledging the green glut throughout the media. The media and everywhere else, I’d say. Just look around at the “eco-friendly” tote bags that have become fundraising tools the way chocolate bars and 18-month calendars used to be. They leave no class behind, ranging from the luxuriously large Whole Foods version to the one-dollar polyester deal available at the grocery store in my neighborhood (affectionately called “Kro-ghetto”). You can design your own bag online, and watch a ticker count the number of “Bags Saved Today!” And there’s more — so, so, so much more. Earth Day’s just a blip on the green screen now.
The day is supposed to mark the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970, but those radical roots just aren’t producing the same fruit anymore. I would bet that the prevailing understanding of Earth Day has less to do with political upheaval and social enlightenment than with a movement that’s often missed the big picture. Forty years of “save the whales,” “save the rainforest,” and now “save the polar bears” can only produce so much concern or action among regular folks. Especially in these economic times, messages about saving yourself from abstract problems that will occur within the next century are just too easy to dismiss. Come to think of it, same goes for good economic times.
So does Earth Day cut through environmental ennui, or resonate at a higher frequency than all the rest of the eco-babble? I don’t think so. I’d just as soon replace it with Regional Food Systems Day or Local Environmental Health Hazards Day. Earth Day’s salvation lies in our ability to seriously connect it to the world as we know it, not as we imagine or would like for everyone to know it. It needs to be an opportunity to examine the current state of affairs rather than trot out decades-old messages.
In 2003, just four weeks after the United States had declared war on Iraq, I barely mentioned Earth Day to friends or family. No matter what one’s political leanings, the war was an enormous, sobering thing. Trying to cajole people to Earth Day festivities the way I normally would seemed about as appropriate as whipping out a piñata at a funeral.
It sort of feels that way in 2009, only worse — because every time I look up, someone’s hanging a biodegradable piñata overhead. Purchased, no doubt, with an optional carbon offset.