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Should we abolish Earth Day?

Forty-two years after it began, has Earth Day become obsolete?

By MSNLiving Apr 18, 2012 11:27PM
Photo: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Imagesby Larry West

Is Earth Day endangered? Should it be? A lot of people these days seem to think that as Earth Day approaches middle age—the holiday will turn 42 on Sunday—it is no longer relevant and should be abolished, or at least ignored.

I’m not talking about the wackos who claim that Earth Day, and the entire environmental movement for that matter, is a socialist plot to redistribute wealth, cripple American industry and destroy capitalism, and who offer as “compelling evidence” the fact that the first Earth Day happened to fall on the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth.

No, I’m talking about people who live in the real world, including a fair number of environmentalists, who believe that Earth Day should go the way of the dodo.

There are two basic arguments for abandoning Earth Day:

  1. Some people claim that the environmental problems we now face are so massive and complex that they require national or global solutions, so the idea that individual action can make a significant difference is no longer valid.
  2. Others say that people should be living sustainably every day and not just performing some token gesture on Earth Day to make themselves feel better about being less than green the rest of the year. According to these folks, Earth Day is at best a distraction from the serious work of protecting the environment, and at worst a free pass to continue living a wasteful and eco-destructive lifestyle.
I disagree with the first and think the second is absurd.

The first Earth Day, back in 1970, was a nationwide teach-in to raise public awareness about critical environmental issues and to educate people about how they could help solve them. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin based the idea on the teach-ins about America’s involvement in Vietnam, which had done so much to change public opinion and inspire people to actively oppose the war, and he recruited a group of college students to organize the event.

I took part in that first Earth Day celebration. In April 1970, I was a 17-year-old high school student in Seattle. In my spare time, I volunteered with Head Start and a local Draft Counseling Center, and I had marched in my share of protests. When I heard about Earth Day, I knew I had to be there.

April 22, 1970 was a beautiful day in Seattle. Sunny and warm with a nice breeze, as though the planet appreciated our concern and was rewarding us with spectacular spring weather. In downtown Seattle, several streets were closed to traffic. Thousands of people gathered to learn about the most pressing environmental issues in the United States and around the world, and to get practical advice about everything from organic gardening to energy conservation. Local bands provided live music, and there was a party atmosphere throughout the day.

Yet for me and millions of others nationwide, Earth Day was more than a good time on a sunny day. I came away from that first Earth Day transformed and committed to making the world cleaner and more livable, just as Senator Nelson had hoped. Nelson’s other agenda for Earth Day was to demonstrate to lawmakers that there was widespread support for government action to address critical environmental issues such as air and water pollution, food safety, and the trashing of America’s inner cities. And it worked.

More than 20 years later, in October 1993, American Heritage magazine summed up the first Earth Day as “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy… 20 million people demonstrated their support… American politics and public policy would never be the same again.” The environmental activism inspired by the first Earth Day helped to persuade President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to pass many of America’s most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

It wasn’t as though no one had ever noticed that the environment was in trouble. Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and led to a ban on the toxic pesticide DDT; the Sierra Club had been around since 1892; and The Population Bomb, written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich and published in 1968, warned that overpopulation eventually would deplete global resources and lead to widespread famine and other hardships.

Say what you will about the Sixties and early Seventies; it was a time when people believed fervently in personal action as a force for good. Don’t like the war in Vietnam? Protest. Think factory farms are poisoning our food? Grow your own. Many people in those years not only believed that individual action was a way to create change, they believed it was the only way.

But that was then, and this is now. So what about those arguments that today Earth Day is irrelevant, or possibly even detrimental to the environmental cause?

Yes, environmental action should be a lifestyle, not an annual gesture. Frankly, however, people who are truly concerned about the environment already demonstrate their commitment daily and are likely to see Earth Day as a time to renew and increase their environmental stewardship. For those who don’t, why is it irrelevant to have a day of events and education each year that may inspire them to begin?

And, yes, it’s true that many of today’s environmental problems are global in scope and can’t be solved by a single person or a single nation, yet all nations and governments and institutions are made up of individuals whom others can influence, persuade and motivate.

After 42 years, Earth Day may have slowed down a bit and lost some momentum, but that’s no reason to toss it on the trash heap it’s been trying to clean up for the past four decades. Rather than abandon or abolish Earth Day, let’s give it a face lift and help it regain the power it once had to inspire millions of people to change the world by changing their lives.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

That’s as true today as it was in 1970.

Happy Earth Day.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Apr 22, 2012 2:37PM
Definitely keep Earth Day.  It's a good day for those who live sustainably to renew their commitment, and for those who STILL haven't go a clue to discover that the Earth needs care and healing so that She can continue taking care of us.
Apr 22, 2012 1:48PM

Indeed, keep Earth Day.  Most people need the reminder, ' we won't go away '.  Very important to keep those environmental issues up front.  Even if it is only one day a year. We know how quickly people forget.  Earth Day should be every day - but THEN people don't care.  So once a year, twice a year, let's keep it out there.  I send out Happy Earth Day cards to remind my friends.  I love that people cared a loooong time ago. It does take just a few who care.   Kudos to all who support.

Apr 22, 2012 11:02AM
Earth Day is MORE than just a way for us to celebrate the world we live in, it's also a way in many countries now to express OUR connection to the Earth in a sustaining and Mind Boggling way.

At current consumption of Carbon from the "earth" which was relayed to us through plants, we have about 35 years left (give or take).  Without the GREEN movement, many of us would still be suffering from cancer (remember ozone depletion ?) that we were once protected from.

With current sunlight reaching our earth we have enough energy to host 500 Million to about 1 Billion people.  Our population is 7 Billion and still rising.  We ALL recognize the "net effects".

As a person who has both euro and Native American ancestors I know both have had to deal with "earth issues" their whole time of existence.  The Euros with the many territorial wars and then overpopulation and the Native American peoples for survival and then also when they had to deal with overpopulation with the creation of agriculture and large societies (much of which is not recorded as history by the euros).  BOTH cultures have been faced with this population issue and they took similar routes by using the Land for agriculture and learning how to live in communities.

The simple fact that some communities used slaves and others did not only further emphasizes the Human Cost of need for labor in stressful situations.

I agree with ALL the facets of how we should live on this earth, but the REALITY is that we shall survive ONLY as long as the Earth, Moon and Sun work in union.  A common understanding amongst the Native Peoples.

Everyone ONE of us can help ALL of us by using the GREATEST amount of today's energy produced by the sun.  IF we get our energy consumption down and drop our use of electricity by 40% this year in our homes, we have created a BETTER future for our descendants.  Look what your ancestors left you.

Technology is always evolving to "solve" problems, but in our steps toward greed in stead of community, we have lost site of what's reasonable.

As a Peace advocate for children--
Peace has a home here..
this home is EARTH
for ALL of us
and we only have
this time here now--

Make the Transition !!

Apr 22, 2012 10:32AM
NO! Keep Earth Day!! I think it's vital and important!
Apr 22, 2012 8:53AM
also,no one in the comment seems to get your point,we should just live our live green everyday and with earth day,we can help others learn to do the same,simple point i must say
Apr 22, 2012 8:49AM
ok,you actually change my idea on the topic,thanks
Apr 22, 2012 7:10AM
As I scrolled down to read comments, I see, of course, someone has to bring political ideology into the discussion. So, now, we should bring religion into the discussion too, right? As long as we see each other  in an "us vs. them" mentality, we will not progress in trying to make things right on the earth. It's not about republicans vs. democrats, or christians vs. muslims, or rich vs. poor: we are ONE PEOPLE on this planet. We are not separate. We are the only people on earth. We are the only people in this solar system. We need to try to fix our problems on a GLOBAL scale. 
Apr 22, 2012 7:04AM
Ozz760- a moron speaks and says nothing.
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