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Earth Day Needs to Evolve

One day of "earth-friendly" consumerism won't save humanity.

Let me get this out of the way-I hate Earth Day. To me, the "holiday" is a dangerous distraction that confuses priorities, blunders the message, and provides a ready-made PR platform for trend-savvy corporate greenwashers. Now, as I often find myself thrust into the role of "token environmentalist" in social gatherings, this proclamation-which surfaces quite a bit this time of year-tends to surprise people. You'd think that an Earth Day-hating environmentalist would be something of a pariah on April 22, and, sure, plenty of colleagues and fellow advocates (who I deeply respect) dismiss my criticism as unnecessarily pessimistic and cynical. But, in fact, a sense that Earth Day is inadequate is picking up steam within the green movement. And I couldn't be happier."One day is for amateurs," offers Grist's new Screw Earth Day campaign, with plenty of contributors making the case. Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker's great climate correspondent, writes that "Earth Day has lost its edge and, with that, the sense that a different world is possible." And last year, Joe Romm, with his typically sharp, scathing pen, called for us to "dump Earth Day" altogether, begging at the very least for us to give it a new name.On almost all counts, I agree. As I wrote last year, "Earth Day, with its ‘save the planet' rhetoric and high-handed prescription of pithy, low-impact lifestyle solutions, has come to represent the worst of the environmental movement-its marginalization and materialization."Let's start with the rhetoric. It's not Mother Earth that needs saving. No matter what we do to it, the planet is going to be just fine. Given time, the global ecosystem will adapt, evolve, and recover. Our species might not be so fortunate. As Romm writes, "Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves…The focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering." Make that message clear, and we've got a fighting chance.It's not Earth that needs saving. It's us.Granted, this shallow, misguided rhetoric extends beyond Earth Day, but the event certainly shouts the message loudest. It has also, I'm afraid, devolved into a PR-driven whirlwind of materialism. Check out the new Saturn hybrid! (Ignore the fact that it gets worse gas mileage than a plain old Honda Civic.) Be amazed by the new line of natural cleaners. (Brought to you by the same company that still won't pay fines for dumping toxic chemicals into local rivers.) Just try to escape your town's Earth Day happening without a eco-tote, freshly branded by some grocery store or department store or television station. (Hang it next to the three other branded eco-totes already in your closet from Earth Days past.)Don't get me wrong-I appreciate that companies are coming around, and all of these things-hybrids, eco-friendly cleaners, reusable bags-are, on their own, good developments. But Earth Day has become little more than a time to celebrate these "solutions"-organic t-shirts! "Ten Ways to Green Your Life" lists! biodegradable forks!-that fall embarrassingly short of what we truly need to deal with the massive ecological crises before us.And then there's the well-worn critique-that it's just one day. It's good to have a dedicated platform for this higher environmental cause is a good thing. But one random day in April-all-too-easily forgotten by May-isn't enough. Perhaps a month would allow for attention to fall upon the most urgent, crucial issues (Rainforest Days, Atmosphere Week, Glacier Day, Soil Week, and so on), and time enough for the deeper, more nuanced discussions that they demand. (We can look for guidance to Black History Month, which has successfully embed itself in the curriculum of schools around the country, and New York City's Bike Month, which has played a huge role promoting and expanding cycling in the Big Apple.) Through it all must run the understanding that small steps are worthless unless they're gateways to bigger actions, and that the environment isn't just about the whales, the trees and the icecaps-that it's also about us. This event, this campaign, this evolution of Earth Day, needs to put the well-being-indeed, survival-of us humans front and center.

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