Who Is Earth Day For?

Environment, history

By Frank Van Nuys

In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.

Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.

My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.

As Earth Day weeks became an annual rite of spring, however, increasing corporate buy-in fueled concerns with co-option and manipulation for marketing purposes. Environmental historian and activist Kirkpatrick Sale, in anticipation of the 20th anniversary Earth Day in 1990, expressed his misgivings in the Nation. The first of four fundamental problems, according to Sale, was the “primary emphasis . . . on individual responses.” Sure, we can all learn more about what to toss in recycling bins, pledge to bicycle more often, or even haul a bag of dirt to school, but “industry and government . . . need an Earth Day more than we do.”

A Pace College student in a gas mask “smells” a magnolia blossom in New York’s City Hall Park on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. (AP Photo). Via Flickr.

Beyond the movement’s focus on individual actions, Sale also criticized Earth Day’s structure, partnerships, and anthropocentrism. It was unrealistic, he pointed out in the article, to expect a “week of media-filtered eco-hype” to produce meaningful momentum toward addressing its grandiose goals when political solutions such as environmental laws and the EPA had done so little to that point. Sale also argued that it was a “fundamental tactical as well as philosophical error” to tie efforts at substantive environmental progress to alliances with corporations, government agencies, and celebrity environmentalist showboats, all of whom seemed “totally blind to the elemental ecological truth that, at bottom, the modern industrial economy is antithetical to ecological harmony.” Sale concluded his critique by noting the movement’s anthropocentrism, writing that Earth Day organizers “seem to have no awareness of any other endangered species than the human, any other crises than those that threaten human comfort and consumption.” In just a few paragraphs, Sale explained how easy it is for a potentially transformative grassroots movement to get co-opted and transformed into just another Hallmark holiday in America.

The emphasis on individual responsibility as a means to deflect attention from the systemic roots of environmental problems, pointed out by Sale in 1990, continues to underwrite much of Earth Day’s brief capture of our attention every spring. Nor is this dilemma unique to Earth Day. For years, climate change discussions, such as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth presentations and film, placed a significant amount of emphasis on what individuals could do to mitigate their personal impacts. For many of us, it became our “personal responsibility” over the past year of pandemic living to follow guidelines to keep ourselves and others safe. Wearing a mask and social distancing might be the right and sensible things to do, as doctors and some government officials have constantly reminded us. Yet, given an underfunded public healthcare system and a chaotic and incoherent government response at multiple levels, we have been largely relegated to individual actions (or inactions) to avoid getting infected. As with environmental issues, we conclude that it’s basically on us personally.

Greenwashing and corporate embrace of Earth Day is as old as Earth Day itself.

Earth Day is an awesome commemoration of what has been achieved in addressing environmental damage and continues to do good work in encouraging us all to keep advocating for progress. Patting ourselves on the back for our personal efforts is OK, too, but it is essential to acknowledge that individual and even many of our collective efforts to be “green” constitute small-scale impacts. Looking at things realistically, it is perhaps still true that corporations and governments need Earth Day more than we do.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). [Google Books]
  • Jenny Price, Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto (W. W. Norton, 2021). [Google Books]
  • Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (Hill and Wang, 2013). [Google Books]
  • Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992 (Hill and Wang, 1993). [Google Books]

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