Earth Day was two days ago, and maybe you didn’t even know or care about it. It used to be an exciting and high-profile holiday. But now, based on the amount of media coverage this Earth Day has gotten, it seems to have fallen on hard times. Does this speak to a general apathy about environmental issues? I don’t doubt the commitment of many people to facing the environmental crises of our day, yet I wonder whether the popular environmental movement has somehow died. Earth Day has been a holiday both for die-hard environmentalists and environmental dilettantes. But who is it for now?
The first Earth Day in 1970 was the moment when the vague environmental concerns and interests of many Americans were harnessed and the popular environmental consciousness as we know it was born. John Whitaker, former President Richard Nixon’s cabinet secretary, saw the birth of the modern American environmental movement firsthand, and describes the first Earth Day as the coming together of several potent forces that had never worked together before in the service of environmental goals. As uncomfortable as it might make us, he credits the birth of the environmental movement partially to the affluence of Americans in the late 1960s. With more money and often more time on their hands, people could think about environmental issues as a hobby. This was back in the days, of course, before the growing consensus that environmental issues touch on the fundamental ability to live happily and healthily. Scientists had already been doing research on connections between pollutants and health, and the media brought these findings, along with a dash of media sensationalism, to the public. The environmental movement was up and running, and the first Earth Day was both the movement’s first product and its catalyst.
Whitaker writes, “A White House poll from May 1969 found that only one percent of Americans thought that protecting the environment was important — two years later, in May 1971, fully a quarter of the public thought that protecting the environment was important.” Earth Day had helped spark a revolution in thought. But what has happened to this revolution? Sure, the polls now say that a majority of Americans still value protecting the environment, but do they back up with their words with action? Do they call themselves environmentalists and then buy SUVS, balk at paying more for post-consumer recycled paper, or deny a connection between human activities and global climate change? Earth Day was once a force for converting the environmentally concerned into the environmentally aware and active. Since then it has been accused of encouraging people to superficially expiate their environmental sins by one day’s observance.
And now, I wonder if Earth Day even exists for many people. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin, writes that “it has become popular — to write the obituary of the environmental movement, to refer to the passing of the ‘golden era’ for environmentalism. It is asserted that public interest has waned, that new worries have captured attention, that inflation, the energy crisis, and international conflict have superseded if not wiped out public concern over environmentalism.” He wrote this in 1980, on Earth Day’s 10th anniversary, when people were wondering if what had started so promisingly and suddenly 10 years before had gone bust. You could argue that today, similarly, concerns about extremely important issues like the war, international relations, and civil liberties have eclipsed the environment in the progressive American consciousness. At the same time, the environmental agenda is facing more setbacks than almost any other area of legislation.
But despite all my doubts, I ultimately don’t think either Earth Day or the environmental movement has lost its place of importance. Environmentalism has invaded the American popular consciousness and there is no way we will ever return to the pre-Earth Day period when protecting the environment was not of the least concern in the minds of most Americans. Still, I strongly believe that Earth Day itself needs to be overhauled.
Now that most Americans are more than capable of feeling “warm and fuzzy” about the environment at any time of the year, it is more important to work to make Earth Day a time for those feelings to turn into action. Campaigns started by grass-roots organizations to coincide with Earth Day, although wonderful, can only reach so many people. And maybe there are better ways to get the environmental dilettantes involved than trying to get them to sign an online petition supporting the McCain-Lieberman Climate Change bill, for example. Just as the original Earth Day created environmental consciousness, maybe it can now raise that consciousness and facilitate the next step in the evolution of the popular environmental movement.
If Earth Day were specifically focused on thinking about our individual consumption patterns, if every American were encouraged to consider how much water and energy he used, how much waste he produced, for example, then maybe we could begin to create a culture of environmentally sustainable behavior. If Earth Day had a chance to spark a new level of environmental consciousness in the average American, it could regain the importance it held in 1970, when it kicked off the environmental revolution.
Jack Dafoe is a junior in Morse College.