Culture Fail: Is Earth Day Broken?

Imagine that you’re on a spaceship. The spaceship is no longer functioning all that well. It’s no longer functioning all that well because you’ve done nothing to care for it or maintain it. Because of this, you managed to kill off the rest of your companions and damage your own life support system. You’ve eaten all the food, squandered all the water, and you’re floating in zero-g through constellations of your own feces. But then you get an idea: Let’s celebrate the spaceship! A spaceship birthday party!

A silly analogy, but you get the point. Isn’t it a wee bit strange, inappropriate even, that as we’re irrefutably and irredeemably destroying our one and only planet—overfishing its oceans, wasting its topsoil, killing its inhabitants, altering its climate, consuming its forests and aquifers and on and on in a dismal, pathetic litany—we take one day a year to say: Hooray for Earth! Bust out the papier-mâché and dress up the kids as sea otters!

Well, it strikes me as weird.

Sure, Earth Day may be good for raising environmental awareness among schoolchildren. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the days when the Willamette River resembled toxic sludge, and much of that can be attributed to the series of landmark environmental legislations that came about during the same environmental zeitgeist that birthed Earth Day.

But that was long ago and since then we’ve done little good and much harm. Take climate change, the mother-lode of environmental issues. We’ve known about the effect of greenhouse gasses on our atmosphere for at least 30 years, and yet we’ve done next to nothing to wean ourselves off them. Why? Because we don’t care.

In Gallup’s open-ended survey, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” only two percent of respondents chose “Environment/pollution.” This was the same amount that chose “lack of respect for each other.” Worse than our cringingly misplaced priorities is that we know how to mitigate climate change—energy conservation, increased energy efficiency, more renewable energy, reforestation, etc.—and we don’t do so because we’re lazy, fearful, apathetic, and greedy. If we really cared about what Earth Day meant, or if Earth Day had been effective, you’d think we’d be up in arms, boycotting ExxonMobile, tossing out Monsanto’s crony politicians, leaving lighter ecological footprints, instead of making ourselves feel better by buying green-washed consumer products or participating in slightly hypocritical holidays.

Yes, I understand that Earth Day exists to remind people of these things. But either it’s failed or we’ve failed it or both. So what? Give up? Don’t celebrate Earth Day? Celebrate Earth Day or don’t; change your Facebook profile picture to John Muir or Ed Abbey or don’t even bother with that symbolism—it won’t matter. The only thing that will matter at this point is going out and putting your body in the cogs of the machine. Living Earth Day every day with every fiber of your being. All else is inadequate.

By Nathaniel Brodie