Let me say right off the top that I plan to celebrate this 41st Earth Day pretty much the same way I’ve always celebrated Earth Day — by doing exactly the same random mix of stuff I do most other days of the year. I should also say that I’m going to be sprinkling quite a bit of rain on the Earth Day parade. Not on any specific float, so to speak, but on the basic concept and its long-in-the-toothiness — but I do wish you well with your own Earth Day endeavors. So if you’ve invested lots of time and effort in your Earth Day puppet show or fashion show or “smart shopping” outing or eco-friendly organo-vegan bake sale, you might want to stop reading right now. Not because I wish you ill, but because I intend to question the efficacy of the whole Earth Day project.
So then: what’s the matter with Earth Day? What kind of Eco-Scrooge would bah-humbug Scout troop conservation efforts and student-organized green parades and a widespread agreement on April 22 as the day of the calendar year on which we pay homage to the earth’s bounty, its preciousness and fragility and the urgent need to protect it from further harm? What kind of shriveled heart would be unwarmed by such a thing? Well, mine, I guess.
(Turns out I'm not alone — the good folks at Grist invite you to join them in a movement they're subtly calling "Screw Earth Day!!!!")
Here’s the thing about Earth Day: It was certainly an effective message in 1970, when it was founded, and for years after that when environmentalism was newfangled and the notion that human actions have ecological consequences was not widely known. But nearly half a century has elapsed since its conception. We have raised several generations now — mine was the first — with the knowledge since early childhood that the ecological health of the planet was in peril from human action.
What’s more, we’ve come to realize that the problem is so widespread and so closely tied to the very core of how we make and do things as industrial societies that the only real way to assure the planet’s health in the long term is to fundamentally restructure industrial society as a whole. We need an entire new energy system; we need to reinvent our transport infrastructure and retrofit almost everything in our built environment; we probably need not just new policies but whole new political institutions to meet this challenge. As Paul Hawken told the graduating class of the University of Portland in 2009, “Civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”
Let me (over)state the obvious: we’re not going to accomplish this with once-a-year bake sales.
Look, I know the argument: hook the uncertain and unaware with something warm and friendly like a bake sale, raise their consciousness, bring them into the community of change, turn them into eco-warriors. The symbolic act creates a new awareness that leads to wider transformation. As far back as my high school recycling club, this has been the paradigm. It’s a campaigner’s paradigm, a save-the-whales paradigm, a protect-this-particular-stand-of-trees paradigm. It is not — and here we come to the crux of my problem with Earth Day — it is not a reinvent-industrial-society-inside-a-generation paradigm.
Probably the easiest way to explain this is using linguist George Lakoff’s concept of message “framing.” (If you’re not already familiar with Lakoff’s work and have even a passing interest in how to change people’s minds and encourage them to act — on any subject at all — you should remedy that ASAP.)
Here’s how Lakoff began a recent essay entitled "On Environmental Communication": "We think with our brains. We think using conceptual systems that are physical. They use brain circuitry, structured to characterize frames and metaphors. All language is made meaningful by activating these frame-circuits."
To clarify: there are pathways in our brains, established narratives into which new information is channeled. These are frames. And “the environment” as something outside of our daily lives that needs saving or protecting or once-a-year honoring is, in Lakoff’s estimation (and mine), lousy framing. Lakoff again: “The term ‘environment’ provides a misleading image, as if the ‘environment’ were outside of us, around us, not inside us and part of us.”
Lakoff’s whole essay is worth reading, but this is the shortest version of my problem with Earth Day: it perpetuates the idea that our environmental problems are things beyond our daily lives that don’t affect our day-to-day needs, that they are issues to be balanced against other priorities and the sacred temple of prosperity called “the economy.” Earth Day frames action on the climate and energy crises, which are the defining crises of the 21st century and require a wholesale reimagination of industrial civilization, as discrete problems outside everyday life that can be properly acknowledged and perhaps even solved by a single token action once a year. Maybe it’s because Earth Day coincides with Good Friday this year, but it’s worth noting that this is the way a sinner pleads for redemption, not the way a society comes together to renew itself.
(Earth Hour, incidentally, is even worse framing, underscoring the idea of painful sacrifice by suggesting that the best way to understand the climate crisis is by sitting in the dark thinking about the bad things that you did. Which is so close to the cold pew and the 10 Hail Marys ordered by the pastor post-confession as to be a sort of homage.)
Finally, Earth Day mostly frames our ecological problems as burdens to be shared, not opportunities to be seized. Which is exactly backwards. I have been to the places where the most dramatic action has been taken to solve our climate and energy problems — places like hyper-livable, bike-happy Copenhagen and booming Solar Valley and whole neighborhoods in Germany where houses make more energy than they use, where Earth Day’s pieties have been truly woven into the fabric of daily life. These are not places where you see people going without in the name of penance for their eco-crimes; these are places where it has been revealed that these crises actually represent the best excuse for bountiful social and industrial renewal in two centuries.
Earth Day doesn’t begin to hint at any of this. It suggests that we stand in roughly the same place we did in 1970: just awakening to the scope of our crimes against a distant place outside of human civilization called “the environment.” It suggests we haven’t built all the tools we need to make the transition to real sustainability in the intervening 40 years, that we still must satisfy ourselves with symbolic acts and token gestures.
The primary subject of this blog is the exploration of those tools and the extraordinary new world they are building. I’d feel almost like a hypocrite honoring Earth Day with some pointless gesture, actually; it’d be as if I didn’t know any better.