Earth Day Turns 35

On April 22, more than a half billion people around the world will celebrate the 35th annual Earth Day, making it the planet’s largest secular holiday. The celebration will cut across boundaries of nations, ethnicities, faiths, philosophies and political orientations.

As the shepherding group Earth Day Network points out, the relatively new holiday really makes a difference. “Earth Day broadens the base of support for environmental programs, rekindles public commitment and builds community activism around the world through a broad range of events and activities,” concludes the organization.

This year’s theme is “Protect Our Children and Our Future,” and a number of events are planned to highlight the threats of air and water pollution, particularly in inner city communities. Kathleen Rogers, the president of Earth Day Network, explains, “While progress has been made, many of those problems still exist, especially among children, the poor and other vulnerable populations. On this important anniversary we are bringing people together to focus on those environmental concerns that threaten the environment our children are growing up in.”

In fact, a lot has changed since more than 20 million people rallied around the first Earth Day in 1970. Many environmentalists were deeply disappointed at their failure to get green issues seriously considered in the course of the heated 2004 national elections. And as E reports in our upcoming May/June 2005 cover story “Trashing the Greens,” in 1992, according to Canada-based Environics Research Group, 17 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “pollution [is] necessary to preserve jobs,” whereas in 2004, a whopping 29 percent agreed with it. Even more disturbing are the controversial conclusions of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who argue in their hotly debated essay “The Death of Environmentalism” that only a quarter to a third of the American people are now firmly in the environmental camp—a dramatic drop from previous numbers.

What’s going on? E‘s upcoming cover story will investigate many of the underlying forces that have conspired to push the environment essentially to the back burner of most Americans’ lives, even though they literally can’t live without it. Some of the chief suspects include systemic problems with the media and with our electoral politics, as well as the heightened effectiveness of ultra-right-wing foundations who are pushing a special interest agenda. But there are other forces at work as well.

Environmentalists are largely fighting a war of public opinion on two fronts, which is not an enviable position, as any general will tell you. On one hand is the age-old enemy of any social movement, regardless if it is right or left, religious or secular, or revolutionary or reactionary, and that is the demon apathy. It takes a lot of intellectual and emotional convincing to get someone to change a behavior. In today’s world that often means people consume a lot of unnecessary and dirty products and services when better designed, more environmentally friendly options are readily available, from wind power over coal burning to high-tech hybrid cars over gas-guzzling behemoths to recycled-content toilet paper over the same product made from virgin fiber.

Let’s face it, in its history, the environmental movement has seen the biggest gains in support after big disasters and outrageous atrocities, from the Exxon Valdez spill to rivers catching on fire and nuclear meltdowns. These big events can shock people into making a difference, but they shouldn’t be the only impetus.

The other front is the ongoing “culture war,” in which the recently emboldened conservative power brokers in this country are leading a new crusade of anti-environmentalism. Whether it is motivated by a particular strain of religious zeal or pure pocketbook selfishness, big business and its allies in the Republican Party are working hard to roll back environmental protections and progress. At the grassroots, many people are not hearing the green message and fall in line with their peer groups, which take their cues from community leaders and on up the hierarchy to the White House, which is one of the most anti-environmental administrations in history.

Those waging a cultural backlash against environmentalism unfairly exploit the vagaries of scientific uncertainty and the complexity and perceived subtlety of today’s environmental problems. For instance, Ross Gelbspan recently wrote in Mother Jones that as a direct result of highly coordinated public relations efforts on global warming, “The press accorded the same weight to the industry-funded skeptics as it did to mainstream scientists, creating an enduring confusion in the public mind.”

Thus, special interests can appeal to apathy and work to head off any discussion of sensible changes to address the threat of climate change by continually harping on over-inflated charges that the “scientific jury” is still out, when actually, “What we know about the climate comes from the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history—the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” as Gelbspan writes.

Similarly, naysayers of the environmental movement like to point out that the U.S.‘s air and water are cleaner than they have been in decades, and that there are more trees. First, that speaks to the effectiveness of environmentalism. Second, while there may be more trees than 100 years ago in much of the country, there aren’t more virgin stands of timber, and any ecologist will tell you that you therefore are talking about very different ecosystems that have their own needs and “values.” Further, as Shellenberger puts it, “Thirty or 40 years ago the environmental problems were cleaning up the air and water, very straightforward and simple to deal with. But now we’re talking about mass extinction, global warming, an oceans crisis.” In other words, just because the air and water may be cleaner by some measures doesn’t mean other threats aren’t on the horizon.

Earth Day Network helps coordinate more than 12,000 organizations in 174 countries, leading to a highly diverse range of local events and festivities each year. For example, this Earth Day will feature an historic environmental rally in Kiev, Ukraine, where leaders of the new democratic government will address more than 250,000 citizens. There will be actions in China and South America, and a conference on water issues in the Middle East.

In the U.S., a tremendous range of activities are planned. Take Austin, Texas, for instance, which has no fewer than 12 Earth Day 2005 events listed on Earth Day Network’s online calendar. More than 1,000 Austin volunteers are expected to help remove invasive species, pick up trash, build trails, plant native plants and more. If that sounds too strenuous, consider dining al fresco with The Progressive Potluckers, the Austin Parks Foundation and members of the AustinEcoNetwork Eat, Drink and Be Earthy. At this decidedly “low key” event, kite flying, Frisbee throwing, swimming in springs and other fun activities are encouraged.

In Chicago, Friends of the Parks will be organizing volunteer efforts all around the Windy City. In San Francisco, there will be beach cleanups; a special event with folk musician Joni Mitchell (who’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” helped energize the first Earth Day events in 1970); a “Wild, Wild Wetland Jam” that features wetland restoration activities, bird tours, entertainment, a community talent show, a dessert contest and games; and a day of “green” films, art installations, live music and other activities at the Sony Metreon complex.

The natural products retailer Whole Foods will be hosting composting workshops and other programs at many of its stores, and natural cosmetics and hair-care company Aveda will host highlights of its “April is Earth Month” campaign, during which the company is working to raise $1 million for conservation and collect 100,000 signatures to support the Endangered Species Act.

Getting involved with Earth Day is a cinch, and it’s fun. Some people consider the holiday to be a prime opportunity to display an Earth Flag (with the globe on a blue field) or other symbol of their patriotism in the human species as a whole and our critical role as stewards (whether we like it or not) of the global environment.

Hopefully, this Earth Day will provide an opportunity for people of all stripes to debate the issues, make positive changes, get organized and get to know the world around them a little better. Earth Day is for all of us, as well as for every living thing.