Forty-eight years on, and Earth Day still stands as that sad old birthday where folk pledge how they won’t abuse her anymore, or at least try not to. For those who bother to participate in the activities, they might gain a warped sense of empowerment, as though they are not just witnesses of the shit show but actors participating in ending it. But year on year, the most desperately needed pledge of all is avoided—to dismantle the system that is fueling the abuse of our spinning orb. The elephant in the room is an economic system that is responsible for humanity’s biggest challenge and claims recycling and clean coal will cut the mustard as a solution.
The proponents of Earth Day adamantly profess that we are all agents of change: that YOU can make a difference. But the issues that come to surface (with increasing severity) at the end of every April have a common denominator and one that is often avoided: neo-liberal capitalism. Not enough people utilize Earth Day as an opportunity to direct even non-fair weather activism toward the real pressure points. Instead, the onus is on the individual consumer—how to consume better.
The need for an Earth Day is, if you think about it, a manifestation of the disconnect that humans have to the ecological systems they are a part of. It stands as a day to remind everyone that we are, in fact, living in an interconnected, breathing, beautiful web of life spinning around the sun. I mean, how long did people actually think that we could get away with drowning the land in plastic before our oceans began drowning our cities? Where Earth is being pillaged, there are marginalised communities surviving on the frontlines, their voices holding the most real and visceral of truths but who don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to do something about ecological catastrophe. For those who have had the fortune of never having to directly experience nature’s almighty force means they haven’t had to live in the wake of a hurricane (and been abandoned by the state); not drunk from polluted rivers (and had profit put before their life); not had their ancestral lands torn up by a gas pipeline (and been accused of terrorism for resisting it); not had to breathe toxic air (and been imprisoned for protesting it); not had the forest you depend on for your existence destroyed by illegal logging companies (and corrupt authorities allowing it to happen). On Earth Day it is these things that are a reality for many marginalised voices who are hardly considered—let alone afforded the space to be heard—above the noise of the rampant spring-cleaning of beaches.
Many already claim that Earth Day is for the privileged elite in the global north, which is partly reflected in that the day seems to breed individualism, most notably in the form of humans being there to “save” the “environment” for a day, focusing on lifestyle changes most accessible to the wealthier of folk. One quick Google search shows headlines reading “11 easy ways to save the environment this Earth Day.” Not only is this particularly unconstructive because there is nothing easy about the gargantuan task of dismantling capitalism (not that the article mentioned the “C” word), but it perpetuates the “othering” of nature by failing to recognize that all the polluting, poisoning, and exploiting is applied to human beings, too. The activities that are most publicized are ones which focus on the do-gooder attitude of “helping the planet.” What is harder, and takes more effort, is addressing the drawn-out challenge of unlearning: shaking the mind-set that we are somehow outside of the Earth’s interconnected ecological web. This mind-set is the enabling condition to an economic system that objectifies, exploits, and profits off of our shared life support machines.
As one young and mighty activist rightly proclaimed: “To get out of the hole we must first stop digging.” But too many still have the shovels in their hands and are only willing to put them down for one measly day, if that.
Building community cohesion through popularizing the more tame actions by focusing on the types of things that the neo-liberal capitalist system doesn’t want us to do, i.e., signing death warrants to straws, refusing take-away cups, living out the mantra of reduce and re-use, learning how to fix things, significantly cutting down on meat, buying locally produced food, learning about where your food actually comes from (I truly believe the latter has the potential to cause a revolution). While these activities do provide a sense of worth for some people in the face of overwhelming environmental issues, in many cases, in a just and moral parallel universe, these acts would be run-of-the-mill habits. But, instead, mobilizing people to adopt these apparently abnormal behavior changes is taking extraordinary effort. Mindless consumption is easy, after all. I can’t help think that if what you do on Earth Day is deserving of a self-congratulatory pat on the back you can’t have been doing a whole lot to begin with, which is worrying given that we dont have time on our side, as demonstrated by the world’s first “no-fly” climate change conference: We Dont Have Time, aired on Earth Day.
The externalized damages and harm traceable to the lives that prioritize convenience is not going to be reduced by telling the public to take an oath to recycle better, turn off lights when they leave the room, shave some minutes off their shower, or to pick up litter in the park. Real change, the kind that would speak more truth to power, starts by understanding how Earth Day has been widely co-opted by businesses, who like to use the veneer of a green ribbon to lure people into a false sense of do-gooding by buying their “green” products in order to continue running their business as usual. So then, the question is what can be done instead to make this day one of genuine concern and commitment to our planet?
We could start by stopping the pretense that we can deliver to Earth what is deserves without addressing a broken and outdated economic system. Those committed to “environmental” campaigning need to do better at communicating the interrelated relationship between climate change and capitalism. We need to do more to show people why they need to join those battling the fossil fuel industry. Given how far and wide extractive projects like fracking and gas (another greenwash) pipelines are spread, there is guaranteed to be an active group of resistance in your area. All these things are ones which show respect to ourselves, as much as they show respect to our Earth. We can revive mindfulness in our everyday lives, and actually make Earth Day one that recognizes and learns from communities with an already deep knowledge and often violent experience of human-Earth connections.
Until widespread activism for system change happens where workers, community leaders, schools, are all mobilized, then the day will remain a token gesture for the privileged, for the insincere, and for maintaining business as usual. We don’t have time for this, and our Earth and its children sure as hell deserve better.