Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
A year ahead of its golden jubilee, Earth Day is facing a major existential crisis.
At its conception, Earth Day was a groundbreaking event for environmental activists looking to shake up national and international policy, and inject conservationism into the global psyche. The campaign was a runaway success, awakening a new generation of activists and ensuring the baton of care for Mother Nature has been successfully passed on to striking students the world over.
Now, however, environmentalists are beginning to have some misgivings: sure, trees need to be planted, beaches cleared of plastic, electric buses sprouted, but Earth Day itself is beginning to veer off its original track.
Environmentalists have many qualms. One is that Earth Day is too short: every day should be a day to prioritize conservationism. Another is that firms have come to exploit Earth Day as just another occasion to sell or give away products, even though consumption is part of the problem: landfills do not need to swallow another tote bag.
Others say Earth Day encourages a surface-level mentality that zeroes in on personal responsibility while neglecting to hold to account the big polluters or the need for vast political change. Still, others are boycotting Earth Day events over the participation of anti-immigrant groups.
Amid the criticism, it is easy to forget that the original Earth Day in 1970 was a major success: an estimated 20 million Americans attended Earth Day events, representing ten percent of the country’s population to make the inaugural Earth Day America’s largest demonstration in history. The Women’s March in 2017, for reference, drew out a mere 4 million demonstrators.
In the wake of the initial Earth Day demonstrations calling on political leaders to clean up the environment, President Richard Nixon’s advisors recommended the establishment of what was to become the Environmental Protection Agency. The decade that followed saw the establishment of 28 major federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In the decades since, however, Earth Day has undergone a rather disturbing transition, morphing into the environmental equivalent of International Free Hug Day. What happened?
Contrary to what some Earth Day critics today might say,” writes Gaylord Nelson in his book Beyond Earth Day. “My thinking was not that a one-day demonstration would convince people of the need to protect the environment. I envisioned a continuing national drive to clean up our environment and set new priorities for a livable America. Earth Day was to be the catalyst.”
Despite all the charges of a corporate takeover of Earth Day, there is a ray of hope: the mindset of environmental urgency that was given life in the 1970s, and has since faded, appears to be coming back. Last month, more than 1.4 million young people took part in the Youth Climate Strike, a climate protest led by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
Earth Day may have collected some hashtags along the way, but the initial message remains unchanged. The kids have arrived to shake things up.