Hooray, it’s Earth Day! That one day of the year when we can all come together and celebrate treating our planet with respect. From first-graders to Jeff Bezos, everyone loves a good, ol’ fashion Earth Day. So, I regret to inform you that we must kill Earth Day and replace it with something more urgent.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was a radical idea, and it had radical results. Spearheaded as a national “teach-in” day by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat and famous conservationist, Earth Day grew out of the civil rights movement. A burgeoning but localized environmental movement inspired by author Rachel Carlson’s best-selling 1962 book, Silent Spring, which detailed the devastating environmental effects of the chemical DDT, fed into the push as well. The devastating 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and the Cuyahoga River literally catching on fire the same year added increased pressure to address the deluge of pollution.
For the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a reported 20 million Americans marched on behalf of their planet, solidifying environmental issues as a major concern for Americans. What followed was a spate of governmental action that is unthinkable today: The passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Richard Nixon signed into existence in December 1970. Today, Earth Day is celebrated in nearly every country.
Earth Day is, in short, largely responsible for the world’s environmental awakening and the regulations to rein in pollution that arose in the decades after that first iteration. The ripple effects of Earth Day and the ideas it instilled and inspired are so widespread and profound that they are virtually impossible to adequately summarize. (I highly recommend listening to this episode of NPR’s Thoughline to better understand Earth Day’s impact.)
Yet today, Earth Day has lost its radical identity right at the moment when that type of energy is essential to our continued existence on this planet. It has, instead, become a “celebration”—a Good Day for Brands™ to greenwash their environmental impacts by announcing pledges, environmental-themed musicals, deals, and this year, inexplicably, NFTs. As climate reporter Emily Atkin wrote in her Heated newsletter, all of these PR pitches are “hot, useless garbage” that have made Earth Day “hell on Earth” for environmental journalists.
Earth Day’s PR-friendly image is not a coincidence. The name “Earth Day” itself is the invention of renowned ad man Julian Koenig, who volunteered to help Sen. Nelson and Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes with their cause. (Fun fact: Julian Koenig is the father of Sarah Koenig, creator of Serial.) And its widespread and enduring appeal is arguably thanks to how palatable it was to mainstream—read: white, suburban—America.
But the increasingly overt brand-friendliness of Earth Day is not merely an annoyance for cranky journalists. It poses a huge risk to the planet and people by lulling us into a false sense of things being marginally better. Big Oil’s main front group has spent the day tweeting about its supposed green bonafides. But the greenest bonafide would be it not existing. It would be Coke paying up for the plastic pollution it creates. It would be acknowledging the undue burden of pollution in communities of color, a legacy that continues since the first Earth Day.
Wilbur Thomas, a Black scientist, said in a speech on Earth Day 1970, “The nitty gritty issues relevant to Blacks is simply the fact that a disproportionate number of Blacks are exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks in addition to the regular burden.”
While the impacts of Earth Day are indisputable, so too is the deficient action we’ve taken in the decades since its inception. Humanity’s inaction over the past 51 years since Earth Day began has led to a global plastics crisis, the destruction of 97% of Earth’s ecosystems, melting glaciers, rising seas, water shortages, increases in extreme weather, and a carbon saturation in the atmosphere of 420 parts per million—up from 315 ppm when measurements began in the 1950s. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere haven’t been this high for 3 million years.
In other words, while Earth Day ignited our collective consciousness around environmental issues and has, either directly or indirectly, led to unfathomable progress, it still wasn’t enough to combat the capitalistic forces that have led us to the yawning chasm stretching out before us today. And we still have yet to achieve true environmental justice that centers Black and brown communities living in the shadow of smokestacks and freeways. There’s movement to right those wrongs, yes. The youth climate movement and some traditional environmental organizations are finally opening the tent to communities of color. But we need the tent to grow even further and for radical ideas to be closer to the center.
At its inception, Earth Day was a revolutionary idea that marked a turning point for politics, policy, and the planet. But the celebratory, brand-friendly version of Earth Day we have today is detrimental to the very cause for which it ostensibly exists.
Earth Day must die because its existence allows for the illusion of action amid a fog of feel-good celebration, as if the climate is not currently on a collision course with catastrophe. Yes, Earth Day provides a handy anniversary for politicians to take real climate action, but the day itself has become scenery rather than the engine for change that we desperately need.
We need a new Earth Day with as much potency as the first Earth Day if we are to address the challenges that lay before us. We need a new idea to blast apart the partisan divides and monied forces that have wrecked the climate for power and profit. We need a newfound spark that, like the first Earth Day, further marries the movement for racial equality with a revolution in clean energies. And we need leaders who can help us ensure that this crucial moment of hope does not evaporate into a vapor of eternal failure.