The best way to get people to neglect a cause is to dedicate a Special Day to that cause each year. On that one special Day, we will hold thousands festivals where we treat the cause in a trite way and we will ignore that cause the other 364 days. We’re just too busy with our amusements and distractions to give a damn about important things here in America. Earth Day fits the mold perfectly. You would think that at Earth Day festivals, people would take the purpose of Earth Day seriously. You’d think that people would feel the need to make substantial immediate changes in their lives in order to live and procreate in healthy and sustainable ways, leaving the planet in good shape for the following generations of humans and the other animals. What could be done on Earth Day? We could talk big. We could make real plans to take the actions suggested by visionaries like Lester Brown, who proposes that we cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2020. It could really be done. Here’s how Brown describes his plan in his book, Plan B 3.0:
First, dramatically and systematically raise the efficiency of the world energy economy; second, massive investment in renewable sources of energy; and third, increase the earth’s tree cover by planting billions of trees.
Really doing something on a big scale could “inspire awareness of and appreciation for the Earth’s environment.” But most people aren’t doing anything at all. They are content to live the same wasteful lives people lived 20 years ago.
I discussed Earth Day with several people recently (in stores, not at the Earth Day festival). They rolled their eyes when I suggested the need to actually change the way we live our lives. They think that Earth Day is run by a bunch of hippies and they don’t trust hippies.
Even those who don’t scoff at the idea of Earth Day mostly believe in belief in Earth Day (just like most religious believers, who often believe in belief). Many Earth Day’ers believe it’s sufficient to merely say and think responsible things, even if the way they live their lives are indistinguishable from those who don’t believe in Earth Day. Many of these people celebrating Earth Day drive to Earth Day festivities in SUV’s from their homes way out in the Suburbs. When they’re done shopping at Earth Day (and there are lots of non-essential things to buy at Earth Day), they drive back out to the suburbs. This inaction reminds me of a neighbor who mentioned a topic to which I responded “That really concerns me.” He immediately chastised me: “No it doesn’t. If you were actually concerned, you’d be doing something about it.”
Here’s a sign that we don’t take Earth Day seriously enough: the oil-powered generators on the grounds. If Earth Day can’t run sustainably, why should anyone else give a damn?
Most people I know don’t seriously consider the bleak consequences of peak oil or global warming. They don’t care that there is no fuel positioned to substitute for our dwindling oil. They have no idea that Americans slurp down almost 5,000 gallons of oil per second. They don’t understand that coal is dangerous (particulates from burning coal kills 24,000 people annually) and that corn ethanol is a political scam that threatens many of the world’s poorest people with death. Most people think that people named “they” will figure things out. Most people simply don’t care. Contrast this malaise with the words of Laurie David, the founder of StopGlobalWarming.org, (from p. 28 of the Better Planet Special Issue of Discover Magazine, April, 2008—not available on-line):
I’ve learned a whole lot about the tough challenges we face as a society. I now know that global warming is about simple choices we make—what kind of car we drive and what kind of lightbulbs we use—but that is just the beginning. The place we need to get to has to include a complete shift in consciousness. We need to fundamentally rethink our whole relationship with the planet. We’re tearing through a finite supply of natural resources. We’re polluting the dwindling supply of freshwater. We’re wrecking the soil necessary to feed the world. We have a lot of work to do.”
Very few people working the booths at Earth Day celebrations are passionate enough to look the rest of us in the eye and challenge us to change our energy and resource wasting ways. Imagine what would happen if they did! Imagine if they implored us: “You can’t drive that kind of vehicle anymore. You can’t live that far from your employment anymore. You can’t build that kind of house anymore.” They’d snuff out the good feeling of Earth Day. They’d risk losing their corporate sponsors. And just imagine how much it would sour the mood if the vendors seriously pushed the idea that we have too many people on this planet and that responsible living depends on somehow limiting (and maybe decreasing) the population, as argued by Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth):
Population Connection believes the well-being and even the survival of humanity depend on the attainment of an equilibrium between population and the environment. Just as the earth and its resources of land, air and water are limited, so are the demands that can be placed upon them.
Continued population growth is foremost among the factors aggravating deforestation, wildlife extinction, climate change and other critical environmental and social problems. It also erodes democratic government, multiplies urban problems, consumes agricultural land, increases volumes of waste, heightens competition for scarce resources and threatens the aspirations of the poor for a better life.
I am forced to conclude that celebrating Earth Day is a placebo for that serious social disease: affluenza. Earth Day festivals are designed to make us feel better–period. Earth Day has also turned into yet another excuse for Americans to buy things they don’t need, including trinkets likely made by child labor. The information distributed at Earth Day is largely devoid of any urgency to change our lives. Why do I say these things? Because I attended an Earth Day celebration at Forest Park in St. Louis. Most of the people at the Earth Day celebration I attended hawk goods and ideas that have nothing to do with sustainable living. Or they sugar coat the problem, as though using a little gadget will save you 30% of the gas you use. And then there was the huge electric company assuring us that everything is fine and that despite all of those train-loads of coal they burn, they have a huge corporate conscience in which we should trust (compare the AmerenUE Plan with the much more education data presented by Public Citizen (PC was not at the St. Louis Earth Day). There were some worthy ideas and products to be seen at Earth Day 2008. There were vendors who will show you how to heat and light your house with sunshine.
There was an earnest representative of a food co-op working to encourage local agriculture. One woman taught children about the destruction of the habitats of endangered Missouri animals. This woman warned of the needless waste caused by use of plastic bags. She was one of the passionate people who really believed in her cause. She saw the big picture and she felt the urgency. I spoke with her for 20 minutes. But there was little or no urgency to most of the presentations at Earth Day.
Perhaps that lack of passion results from our distorted political process. We don’t like to elect politicians unless they tell us only good things, happy things. And once we elect them, we like to believe them. Earth Day: another casualty of the post-fact era in which we live.