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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that they require national or global solutions, so the idea that individual action can make a significant difference is no longer valid.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 3:50PM
... Earth Day my A55 ...  Do you know why April 22nd was picked as Earth Day ... the marxist eco terrorist picked it because it's Vladimir Lenin's Birthday ...  very clever
Apr 20, 2012 3:50PM
I sat and watched my 9 an 10 year old grand kids rush home from school yesterday and go out to plant trees. Then wish thay had more, when i asked why, There answer was but gram if every one planted a tree every year we could all help put back what some people cut down. These kids recycle and when they walk the dogs they clean up after them.They even will pick up trash that lays in the yard on there own. Can you think what if we all did what these 9 and 10 year old did and do on their own. Would we really be here? DONT LAZY ,THIS IS OUR WORLD THEIR FUTURE.
Apr 20, 2012 3:44PM
I equate this to my Christianity. Easter Sunday is a beautiful day. It's a day of celebration of immense proportions. That single act saved all of mankind. I don't go around the other 364 days of the year not thinking about it, or even celebrating it. Easter Sunday is a day to join others who feel the same way and to reach out to others that want to hear that message (once again, something I try to do every day :)

Earth Day is much the same way. While many of us "do Earth Day" everyday; that is, our part to reduce waste, recycle items and make an impact with our carbon footprint to make this a better planet for our children... Earth Day is a great way to renew that rally and join others in doing their part to make a difference also.
Apr 20, 2012 3:42PM
I'm gonna burn a giant pile of plastic in earth day's honor next year and leave on all my lights . Gotta do something for the govt brown noser cause .Oh and (GASP!) I'm going to use PLASTIC BAGS when I shop. Even for the milk jugs .
Apr 20, 2012 3:40PM
Do not abolish Earth Day!  If anything we need more earth days.
Apr 20, 2012 3:40PM

Let this demonic day of earth worship go down in flames. The whole purpose of this day is to suck unbelieving, unsaved & uncommitted Christians people into worshipping the devil. The Aztec tribes, Egyptians worshipped the world along with the sun gods. This is nothing more than that. Do away with worshipping the devils.

But wait there is big money in worshipping the devils. I believe that we have to be responsible for what God has entrusted us with. But not worship.

The devil is never short on phony schemes to distract the human race from their true purpose. To be reunited with their creator.

Apr 20, 2012 3:36PM
Very "Earthy" column. I participate in Earth Day in some small way every year, but every day I do what I can to recycle, reuse and reduce. To argue that individuals don't make a difference is absurd -- it is those many thousands, even millions of individuals who add up to make a difference. It is astounding when you read the numbers in statistics regarding how much the average person wastes in one year. So, whatever you can do, more power to ya!
Apr 20, 2012 3:35PM
You should never give up on helping "Mother Nature".   She does an unbelievable job and gives us so much, it would be a shame if we can't even give her one day out of the year.
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