Tomorrow is a very special Earth Day. It’s the 50th anniversary of the holiday since it began in 1970 in the United States. Every year since, April 22nd has been a national then international holiday to raise awareness about our deteriorating environment and encourage citizens to protect it.
History of Earth Day
Earth Day was founded by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who, spurred by a 1969 oil spill in California, sought to bring environmental protection to the national stage through a “national teach-in on the environment“. His target audience was college students, many of whom were participants of anti-war protests. Because of this, he chose April 22nd for the date so it landed between Spring Break and final exams.
The nation was already growing more and more in favor of environmental protection thanks to Rachel Carson’s powerful book Silent Spring which was published in 1962. Silent Spring argued that pesticides were harmful to non-target animals and the environment, that the manufacturers made false claims of safety, and that the government readily accepted those claims without scrutiny.
On April 22, 1970, a whopping ten percent of the country’s population took part in protests from coast to coast. Earth Day had brought together people from different political and socio-economic backgrounds for a singular cause. By the end of that year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the government established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Twenty years later, Earth Day went global. Over 200 million people from 141 countries participated in their own calls for environmental protection. For Earth Day 2000, 184 countries were participating. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and over 190 countries around the globe will be celebrating.
Earth Day Won’t Save Our Planet
While Earth Day started a global movement that pushed environmental issues to the forefront of politics, one day a year is not enough. Earth Day is often celebrated through litter cleanups, planting trees, and protests. These are well and good, but in my opinion, it has led to a superficiality and blinds us to the harsh reality of our situation.
One day of action will not remedy a year’s worth of environmental damage. A single action will not make a habit that sticks. By creating an event rather than a lifestyle movement, Earth Day has become contorted by corporations to make an extra buck. “Going green” for a day convinces ourselves we are better stewards of the planet than we are.
Our planet will not survive if we only fight hard to save it one day of the year. We must do more and do it consistently!
The idea that Earth Day is not enough came to me two years ago when I had been planning on signing up for a volunteer event. Two days after Earth Day, I realized not only had I not signed up, but I didn’t do anything special for Earth Day at all. At first I shrugged and thought, “There’s always next year…” But then I realized what a bad thought that was.
If we treat Earth Day like the one day a year to care about the environment, we’ll only have another decade before we see the disastrous effects of climate change. This prediction is based on the IPCC’s 2018 report providing a 12 year deadline for unprecedented changes to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
I started thinking to myself, why does April 22nd have to be the one day a year I specifically do something impactful? What about the other 364 days in the year? My activism should not be dependent on the calendar, nor should it be limited in frequency.
I then had “the litter realization.” I had planned on signing up for a litter cleanup. But does that cleanup mean all that much if the litter gets replaced within a week or two? We’re working from the wrong end of the problem. We need to work on preventing environmental impacts instead of just focusing on cleaning up the mess.
You may have heard about greenwashing when it comes to products in the store. The terms “eco-friendly” and green packaging convince us the product inside is good for our environment. This is not necessarily the case though because there is no regulation on words like “eco-friendly” or “green” ensuring a product is a good as it’s presented.
But today I’m talking about greenwashing companies and even ourselves.
Corporate Greenwashing Examples
Companies have turned Earth Day into a sales event and advertising campaign to sell more products that may not even be good for the environment. Here’s a brief list of examples I discovered.
- The International Bottled Water Association claimed bottled water was the “face of positive change” for Earth Day 2013
- Multiple companies who ran Earth Day sales last year
- Honda dealership commercial for their Earth Day weekend sales event
- PepsiCo’s Earth Day Facebook post last year is really just an ad for their products
- This counterintuitive 2019 article on Earth Day promotions which includes this: “There are innumerable ways you could celebrate, including sending letters to representatives and trying to understand the magnitude of the climate crisis. While these are baby steps toward dealing with the loads of problems the planet faces, many restaurants and companies are offering discounts and promotions to help you celebrate Earth Day.”
- Furniture company Polywood’s 2020 Earth Day Sale for their recycled plastic chairs
Coca-Cola Case Study
Clearly companies are exploiting an environmentalist cause for their own profits. For example, Coca-Cola donated syrup drums for use as rain barrels for Earth Day in 2012. This post references a Dasani ad campaign pushing bottled water sales to celebrate Earth Day.
While this is great, it blocks out the fact that Coca-Cola is the world’s biggest plastic polluter.
For the sake of journalism, I will note that Coca-Cola has started the World Without Waste initiative promising to make 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 and use at least 50% recycled materials in packaging by 2030. They also plan to recycle one bottle or can for every one they sell by 2030.
Coca-Cola is pushing PET bottle-to-bottle recycling as a “circular solution” to the plastic problem. This is good, but recycling is not the answer. According to this Huffington Post article, virgin (new) plastics are often infused with the recycled plastics to increase durability. Even so, the plastic will eventually degrade so much that it is no longer recyclable. This is not a “circular solution.”
Despite these sustainability initiatives, this article published just last week shows Coca-Cola is still the largest plastic polluter. By far.
Companies aren’t the only ones to blame for using Earth Day as a pat on the back. Some of us may celebrate the day and do some good things, but the day after is business as usual. One day isn’t enough to make a real change. It takes weeks to form a habit that sticks. We can’t rely on a single day or a single action to change our lifestyles permanently.
In addition to this, our green actions can make us forget that so many people just plain do not care. There are still climate change deniers, profiteers, and uninformed or misinformed people all around us. Tomorrow will be just another Wednesday for them. For us, the holiday is important, but we can’t pretend like everyone is as eco-conscious as we are.
Every Day Must Be Earth Day
We need to treat every day as Earth Day. Caring for the environment must become second nature to us, all of us, for our planet to survive. Educate yourself and others, set goals to create habits, and make it a point to do something sustainable every day.
It doesn’t need to be something big. For example, have a PB&J instead of a ham sandwich for lunch. Look for clothing secondhand first. Sort through your recycling. Pick up a piece of litter on your walk.
The most important thing we can do is spread the word. Join an environmentalist group. Attend a climate strike. Write your politicians. Educate your friends and family about climate change and the low impact movement.
Due to the circumstances, celebrate Earth Day 2020 virtually with Earth Day Network’s 24 Hours of Action. There are digital events planned around the globe.
The point is one single Earth Day isn’t enough. It is an important step, but it cannot be treated as a solution or a pat on the back or a sales event. We cannot set aside just one day of the year as “the day I do something good for the planet.” We must change our lifestyles, make our voices be heard every day of the year, and hold companies accountable by not taking their sustainability plans at face value.
Check out my post on What More Can You Do For Our Future? or the resources below for more information on getting involved.
- Citizens’ Climate Lobby
- Sierra Club
- The Nature Conservancy
- Marine Conservation Society
- Friends Of The Earth
- Canadian Environmental Groups