THE RED FLAG WENT UP for me two decades ago. I was living in Los Angeles and driving somewhere (of course) when an ad came on the radio imploring listeners to “Join the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ted Danson at the Santa Monica Pier for Earth Day!” Now I appreciate the work of the Turtles, and Mr. Danson, as much as the next person, but it didn’t seem right. Sure, I could pilot my fossil-fuel burner to the pier and pose for pictures with the Cheers star. And then what? Quiz the Turtles on greenhouse gases? Wouldn’t it be more earth-friendly to stay home and think green thoughts?
Earth Day began in 1970, the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin, as a mass environmental teach-in about air and water pollution galvanized by a 1969 oil spill off the California coast. Nelson persuaded Representative Pete McCloskey to serve as his cochair — yes, it seems odd today that a then-Republican helped inaugurate Earth Day, but let’s not forget it was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act. Now, more than 40 years — and several huge domestic oil spills — later, Earth Day is bigger than ever. The Earth Day Network boasts more than 1 billion participants in 192 countries. That size is part of my ambivalence.
The Western ideology is that growth is good. Not just corporations, but also nonprofits, universities, and even cities all seek to get bigger and richer. But unabated expansion entails increased consumption, debt, inequality, and pollution, depleting the natural environment, which, once sufficiently degraded, becomes unable to sustain the growth demanded of it. Yesterday, thousands of volunteers were expected to help clean up miles of riverbank along the Charles and its tributaries. Removing some 50 tons of debris — despite the added cars on the road with those volunteers getting to their work sites — is a laudable thing, and wildlife is no doubt grateful. But let’s leave it at that, continuing to organize gatherings where nobody plugs in a generator or sells flavored water, french fries, or T-shirts. The green giant should keep an eye on his waistline.
I don’t want to set up a Styrofoam man here: Earth Day organizers are no doubt aware of the contradiction of eco-minded events that themselves generate large amounts of waste. (And environmentalists object to “greenwashing,” whereby resource-guzzling corporations such as Best Western and UPS are able to become Earth Day Network sponsors.) Proponents will also tell you that the purpose is not selling T-shirts or bumper stickers, but education to promote sustainability and conservation — Earth Day needs to be global to raise awareness about transnational problems like deforestation, global warming, and ocean destruction. I recognize that Earth Day activities like river cleanups and tree plantings have powerful symbolic and community-building functions that transcend their tangible benefits.
But still I have reservations. It seems incredible to me that lots of regular people still have not heard about minor save-the-earth efforts like driving less and raising the thermostat setting on the AC a couple of degrees. Plus, I bet those who really need a dose of Earth Day (the ones who leave their cars idling in the parking lot, tossing fast-food wrappers out the window all the while) are not getting the message, no matter how many bumper stickers you slap on your vehicle.
Then again, maybe my problem is not ideological, but personal. When the calendar tells me it’s Earth Day, I think: Oh, great, now I have to pick trash off a beach with my kids or I’m a bad person. It’s like Christmas in reverse; instead of being obligated to go to the mall, I am prohibited.
I don’t boycott Earth Day — what would that mean, buying another car and hiding my recyclables in the trash? — but I do play it low-key and close to home, resisting Earth Day swag and “green” purchases. And I try to remember, as is the case with days and months honoring veterans, black history, and women, that one can celebrate the earth all year long. The attention won’t spoil it.
BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated number of US homes heated entirely by solar energy in 2011
Estimated number heated by gas
Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor in Cranston, Rhode Island. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.