by E.C. Fish on April 22, 2012

I take no particular pleasure in raining on parades, but it’s hard for me to approach today’s forty-second observation of Earth Day with anything but ambivalence. On the one hand, the increase in environmental awareness and the accompanying practical progress where environmental issues are concerned has been literally world-changing, and I don’t for a minute want to denigrate that in any way. On the other, our society has, especially in the age of social media, a profound tendency to confuse awareness with action, and to mistake the actions socially sanctioned by our collective commemorations with genuinely effective responses to the issues raised. Waving flags and fighting wars are two very different things, and one should never supplant the other.

This is especially problematic with Earth Day, because encouraging people to become part of the solution, or at least less of the problem, is a large part of what the day is all about. Sound advice on recycling, energy conservation, and sustainable consumer practices fairly bombards us from the second Sunday in April until the third, along with a slew of the kind of petition drives and “copy this to your profile” consciousness-raisers that constitute postmodern online activism. All of these things are wonderful. Yes, one should try to live as “greenly” as possible, one should be aware of the environment and share that awareness with others. The problem is that given the state of the environment, such individual, everyday efforts are a woefully inadequate response to the problems at hand.

Inadequate, because what Earth Day leads us to believe we can do is solve through our individual day-to-day actions a set of problems that to a great degree aren’t caused by those actions in the first place. Any realistic assessment of environmental degradation will show that corporations and governments pollute, waste, and abuse far more than individual households do, and that as such, the solutions to the problems of pollution, waste, and abuse are far beyond the scope of us “doing our part,” as important as that might be.

As progressive-identified as Earth Day might be, in its current form it seems to be merely another iteration of the conservative tendency to offer market-based solutions to collectively threatening social problems, to the point where such solutions can easily become another part of the problem. They obscure corporate responsibility quite nicely, and allow some of the corporations responsible to make a gesture towards the side of the angels without having any questions asked that might harm the bottom line.

Manipulating markets and co-opting public opinion are, for better or worse, what corporations do, and it’s important to note just how much of Earth Day 2012 bears the stamp of corporate sponsorship and the imprimatur of the marketing and lobbying departments. The choices we are asked to make, more often than not, are limited to choices between better and worse brands produced by the same combine. Companies go out of their way to sport a green label that is all too reminiscent of the recent trend towards slapping the words “A Gluten-Free Food” on products that never contained wheat (the source of gluten) in the first place. Tar sand oil, fracked natural gas, “clean” coal technology, and nuclear energy (“Goooooood mooooooorning, Fukushima…”) are shoehorned into our national debates on sustainable energy policy, wrapped in bright shiny cloaks of corporate feel-good and hearty self-congratulations. And jobs. Really good jobs. Because, hey, they care, and The More You Know…

There are, in fact, many important things we can do as consumers to address environmental issues. What we need to remember this and every Earth Day is that there are many more important things we can do as citizens. The individual is indeed powerful, but never more so than when he or she is informed, empowered, and organized towards a greater goal. The real choices we’re offered this Earth Day aren’t about lifestyle– they’re about life itself. And until we make them, Earth Day amounts to nothing more than a very pretty green sticker on the back of a very inefficient vehicle.

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E.C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Idstrom April 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Right on, brother. I’ll add that one of the most environmentally beneficial initiatives these days is making urban centers more livable and attractive. The idea being that it is easier to gather up/treat pollution and prevent sprawl from eating up natural habitats when humans live in tighter quarters. Several major enviro foundations have jumped on this as a new direction for grantmaking. Interesting idea that encompasses not just building parks, but improving the experience of living in a city – public safety, arts, transit, etc. Why we don’t just copy Barcelona though, I haven’t figured…


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