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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that they require national or global solutions, so the idea that individual action can make a significant difference is no longer valid.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 20, 2012 3:17PM
The name should be changed to Koch Brothers Day.
Apr 20, 2012 3:14PM
I believe that we need to continue educating and then putting into action the care and cleaning of Earth!! It may just be one day, but there are people that continue to come away changed!  They are the ones who continue to try and heal the Earth, and to try to educate the world on what we need to do to continue having clean air and water!! And to the ones who think it is a "Conspiracy" Try drinking nasty water with no air to breath!!! That will change your mind if nothing else does!!!!!
Apr 20, 2012 3:14PM
Here's to "EARTH DAY" every day. We need more of them, not less!
Apr 20, 2012 3:13PM
If  the actions of indiviuals don't matter, why ban 100 watt light bulbs?
Apr 20, 2012 3:13PM

The concept of Earth Day was a good thing. It drew awareness to the way we trash our environment, and led to good practices like recycling.

However, humans being what they are, environmentalism quickly became a marketing tool, and spawned the ridiculous word "green" to sell overpriced products.

Any attempt at downsizing our gas-guzzling vehicles has been short-lived. Americans have never liked the "C" word (conserve) and never will.  An Italian relative told me "Europeans could live for a year on what Americans throw away."

So I believe that Earth Day has pretty much outlived its usefulness.



Apr 20, 2012 3:12PM
im so tired of the people who write these columns.what difference does it make?
Apr 20, 2012 3:12PM

"Impeach Obama"....

Nice name. Proves that you're an idiot.


I guess when all else fails, blame the Chinese or the Mexicans or the Muslims, right?


Losers. Jeeeze.

Apr 20, 2012 3:08PM
We have an overpopulation of stupid, selfish and greedy people.
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