Is Earth Day Passé?

April 22 marks the 41st Earth Day – a day created by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970 in response to widespread environmental degradation. The first Earth Day was greeted with such enthusiasm that it practically organized itself. But even last year, Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, seemed to come and go with little fanfare. I wondered if my friends and associates would celebrate Earth Day, and if so, how, so I sent out a short questionnaire.

My first read through the responses was discouraging:

“Are we still doing that?”

“Was it started by hippies or something?”

“What can one person do? What can one day do?”

“I don’t celebrate it and I don’t know anyone who does.”

“I’ll celebrate when Al Gore’s carbon footprint is under control.”

“It’s like Mother’s Day, minus the mothers.”

How can this be? Every day there is more tragic news about the environment. Coral reefs are in big trouble, dead dolphins are washing up on the Gulf Shore, ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica is outpacing what models predicted…

I wondered if I should bother to write this column – perhaps my time would be better spent moving to higher ground. But I reasoned that having one more person say, “You make a difference, please try to have it be a positive difference,” couldn’t hurt. In addition, I do have some environmentally minded friends. Here are just a few of the sparks of inspiration my peeps provided. I wish I had room to include them all.

“I don’t know if I should feel bad that I don’t know anything about Earth Day, or should feel good that at my house we consider the environment in our everyday living.”

“If Earth Day means that everyone should aware of environmental issues then I believe that every day should be Earth Day.”

“As a family, we have planted trees in honor of loved ones, and worked in the garden.”

“The most wonderful change I’ve seen is that the Merrimac River in New Hampshire, which had globs of crusty brown and yellow suds when I was a kid, and is now gorgeous and sparkling.”

“My 13-year-old and her cousins want to dress up in blue and green. I thought it was a great idea to visually recognize the day. I think I will ask my employees to do the same.”

“It’s easy to forget that issues in 1970 were large-scale – concern with the polluting habits of some large companies, the quality of our air and water, and the ability to safeguard the health and safety of American workers. Government regulation is controversial, but it has made a difference.

“I remember the first Earth Day as if it were yesterday – I was a student at UCONN Avery Point, and we had tugboat rides to nearby islands to learn about tides, ecological concerns, struggles of marine life, etc. – in truth, we were blissful on the sea, only dimly aware of a future holding the horrors of broken BP valves…”

“Perhaps because we live on an island, there are a lot of concerned citizens. People organize clean ups at the beach, to remove all the garbage that washes in over the winter.”

And my favorite response: “My brother is writing a book on Earth Day. Why don’t you give him a call?”

A New Book on Earth Day

Adam Rome,

Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, is writing a book on the history of the first Earth Day (to be published in 2012 by Hill and Wang). Much of his teaching and writing is about how our relationship to the environment has changed over time. His first book is The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

I asked Adam about his latest book. “Like most historians, I always have known that the first Earth Day was important as an unprecedented demonstration that Americans wanted government, business, and consumers to do more to protect the environment. When I decided to start the book, I mostly was interested simply in bringing the event to life. But as I did more research I came to believe that Earth Day was even more important than anyone had realized. Earth Day really enabled thousands of people to make a difference, not just in 1970 but for years afterward!  And that’s inspiring, I think!”

In responding to my question about the amorphous nature of today’s Earth Day, Adam replied, “Gaylord Nelson did not originally expect that Earth Day would become a yearly event. Even in 1970, Earth Day was celebrated in different ways in different places. Some people saw the event as a celebration, and others saw it as a protest. Many saw it as an educational event. So it’s not surprising that Earth Day now does not take just one form.”

A Billion Acts of Green®

Using the logic that if we all do little bits those bits will add up to massive action, the Earth Day Network has launched their “Billion Acts of Green” campaign for this year’s Earth Day. Individuals, organizations and companies are invited to register their pledges to act sustainably. The goal is to register one billion actions in advance of the Earth Summit in Rio in 2012. Go to earthday.org to see what people are doing, register your own pledge, and/or list your event.

So Is Earth Day Passé?

Adam convinced me that Earth Day is not passé – it’s just different. I hope someday it will become passé, because our sustainable actions will have become so ingrained and pervasive that the thought of a single day to remind ourselves to care for the planet will seem quaint.

Free Movie

The first person who contacts me and mentions this article will receive an awesome documentary called The Seeds of a Revolution: Earth Days. (Also available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/earthdays/player.)


E-mail deb@naturalnutmeg.com.