earth day flag

As I’m sure media (and social media) will tell you repeatedly, today is Earth Day. As my blog deals often with history, including environmental history, you might expect this blog to be about the history of Earth Day, how it started in 1970 and the circumstances around it. It’s not going to be that.

I don’t want to talk about Earth Day 1970. I’d rather talk about Earth Day 1990. That was the first year I remember Earth Day being a big deal, covered and promoted extensively by the press and talked about by everyday people. I was a senior in high school in April 1990 and I remember posters around the school, a recycling drive and some other activities. That evening I remember watching a really terrible TV special featuring dozens of stars including Robin Williams and Jane Fonda, and I specifically recall a scene with Bette Midler wearing a dress made of garbage. All the Earth Day hoopla was kind of cheesy but it seemed to be something positive: people in America, common people, were at least paying some attention to environmental issues.

Historically, Earth Day 1990 was somewhat consequential. It did focus the attention of the English-speaking world, albeit briefly, on environmental issues. There was, for example, an “Earth Day 20” climb up Mt. Everest, led by legendary mountain climber Jim Whittaker. The visibility of Earth Day 1990 is also credited with advancing the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992. Was it worth having to see Bette Midler in a garbage dress or Robin Williams make bad jokes about recycling? Probably.

From the 1990 Earth Day special. Check out Bette’s costume. Warning: click this clip at your own risk! The sappiness of it could cause diabetes.

The sad truth, though, is that I think we as a global society have actually regressed since 1990 regarding environmental issues. Nearly 25 years later we now understand–with much greater clarity and urgency than we did in 1990–the causes, problems and implications of man-made climate change, which in my opinion is far and away the #1 most serious issue facing every nation in the world right now. People did talk about global warming in 1990, and comparatively more people talk about it today in 2014; but talk is cheap. We have done extremely little to address climate change. The United States has no cap-and-trade program, no legally binding emissions targets, and is party to no international agreements on global warming that are any more than simply aspirational. A substantial majority of one of the two major political parties in the United States doesn’t even believe that climate change is real! This is not only far behind where we should be in 2014, it’s arguably behind where we were in 1990.

To its credit, the ballyhoo over Earth Day 1990 focused on the theme, “What can you do?” This question usually got answered with slogans: recycle, reuse, reduce, etc. In the years following 1990 many of us got blue or green plastic bins in our kitchens. Okay. That’s certainly good, but now that we’re separating our trash and some of us are buying hybrid vehicles, the low-hanging fruit in the “What can you do?” game has already been picked. That’s the difference between 1990 and today. Once you recycle and try to reduce your carbon footprint, what more do you do? And do those things really matter, or is watching an Earth Day special and throwing water bottles into green bins in our kitchen more about making ourselves feel less guilty than it is about solving environmental problems?

If we, as an interconnected global society and as a species aware of our place in the world, really wanted to deal with these problems, we could. In the 1940s, in a very short span of time, the United States mobilized an incredible amount of financial capital, industrial resources, brain power and human power into winning World War II, an effort that engaged almost every single man, woman and child in America on some level. That’s the level of commitment that will be necessary to solve climate change and institute sustainability, and it’ll have to come not just from one country but from all countries. In World War II, the political will was there and people did not need much convincing that their sacrifices and the changes in their lives were worth it. That kind of will is hard to find today. Most people genuinely do have legitimate concern for the environment, but we lose interest when addressing these concerns begins to impact our daily lives in a significant way–beyond the green bin in the kitchen. We don’t hold our politicians to account for refusing to address environmental issues; there are dozens of climate change deniers in Congress who suffer no penalty for their ignorance of proven science. We devote comparatively few societal resources to developing cleaner fuels or changing destructive behavior by corporations or governments.


What’s it going to take to clean up all this crap? Billions upon billions upon billions of your tax dollars, I’m afraid.

This is what the hoopla on Earth Day 1990, and the hoopla every Earth Day, misses. It’s not that people don’t know what problems we have–climate change, desertification, chemical toxins in food and water, die-offs of important insects like bees, deforestation. Knowledge is not the issue. I’m also not sure it’s even an issue that people don’t care or don’t want to solve these problems. I’m convinced many people, if given the choice, would like to see greater engagement by governments or corporations with environmental issues. But no one knows even how to begin the really big changes, the ones that will make a difference.

Solving large-scale environmental problems is going to be painful and expensive. It will probably involve painful tax increases and massive amounts of government spending. It will probably result in a lowering, or at least a significant change, in the quality of life of First World peoples. It will cost people their jobs. It will probably cost many people their lives. In this century or the next, wars may be fought increasingly over environmental issues or natural resources. It will be an ugly process. This is the reality we have to face. No one person or group has a magic bullet or “the answer,” and we should be wary of anyone who claims to. But we’re going to have to do something about these problems, and it doesn’t matter whether you agree or not because the existence of the problems has nothing to do with who or how many people acknowledge them. This is the way it is. We don’t have a choice. This is the world we made, and it will force us to deal with it whether we’re ready for it or not.

I wish that was the message that had come across on Earth Day 24 years ago. But it wasn’t. It’s not the message that’s coming across this Earth Day either. Picking up trash or tossing bottles in a green bin isn’t going to work. Until Earth Day starts being about something substantive, and involves a true reckoning with global environmental issues, it’s going to be about as useful as Bette Midler in a garbage-covered dress. That’s not a very happy Earth Day message, I admit, but I feel it’s at least an honest one.