I have a really, really hard time getting into the spirit for Earth Day. I think it may be because I don’t think that being green for 0.273% of the year is really going to fix the ozone hole, save the coral reefs, de-acidify the oceans, re-freeze the Arctic, and save the black rhino.

Setting aside Earth Day for a once-a-year symbolic gesture for Mother Nature is sort of like being merry on Christmas Day, then being an absolute jerk the other 364 days of the year.

It won’t get the job done. In some ways, it may even hurt, because Earth Day allows a lot of people to create the illusion that the job is getting done. So go ahead, make my Earth Day and plant a tree. But it may be more important to make all of us better-informed citizens on what’s going right --  and what’s not -- with the environment. Here are a few suggestions.

1) Watch a really smart series of videos from Robin Beck and Brea Morgan at the Rainforest Action Network’s website. Last year, they tackled some of the most egregious examples of Greenwashing -- reaping a public relations reward by making dubious, or outright phony, claims of environmental progress. Robin and Brea take on everything from those infamous “clean coal” ads to Mattel’s efforts to market a girls’ apparel line made from recycled Barbie parts. Barbie, you will recall, is an unrealistically-proportioned tiny woman made entirely from petroleum products.

2) Read a remarkable piece from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Reporter Jon Gertner examined “Why the Brain Isn’t Green,” and how we may not be wired to conclusively deal with problems like climate change. While it’s getting more real and present-day all the time, the worst is yet to come -- and we’re societally much better at fixing existing problems than we are at preventing new ones. Gertner also points out that 98% of federal research dollars on climate deal with the science of what our future may look like. Nearly nothing goes into the social science of studying why people don’t seem to care.

3) Get familiar with how your congressmen and senators are performing. The website for the League of Conservation Voters maintains a scorecard of legislators’ performances on key votes. To track who may be purchasing those votes, the Open Secrets site of the Center for Responsive Politics follows the money. You will find, for example, the biggest climate change deniers, like Rep. Joe Barton or Senator Jim Inhofe, are up to their ears in fossil fuel money.

4) Listen to the skeptics. They’re wrong about a lot, and they’re dangerously wrong about some things. Often, they’re wrong for reasons of blind ideology, or simply because they’re compensated to be wrong. But the environmental movement isn’t, and never has been, perfectly right, and the blind ideology thing works both ways.

5) Be skeptical of the good guys. You should donate if you can, but make sure your worthy cause is really worthy. The Charity Navigator website is a good place to start. And for all the good things that are promised out of the economic stimulus for renewable energy, mass transit, science, and more, does anyone really believe that it’s possible for billions of dollars to change hands completely ethically and efficiently? The Open Secrets site is also a good first stop for tracking how well your money is being spent.

6) Think about consumption. Driving five miles to the recycling center to drop off a few dozen bottles, cans, and newspapers may help your conscience, but it’s probably not helping the planet a whole lot: It’s literally a guilt trip.

7) Don’t let the media off the hook. Be skeptical there, too. If environmental coverage seems skewed, or nonexistent, let the editors and news directors know. A site that’s been consistently good at critiquing environmental coverage is mediamatters.org.

Hope this helps. And have a Merry Earth Day.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)