crumpled earth

Today (April 22, 2015) is Earth Day. I care a lot about the environment. I do articles on this blog all the time about climate change, and I am an environmental historian. You might assume with this pedigree that you would find me embracing Earth Day, especially this one because it’s the 45th anniversary of the “holiday” designed to increase environmental awareness. But I’m not very enthusiastic about Earth Day this year. Don’t get me wrong; I think increasing environmental awareness is a good thing, and Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment for modern environmental consciousness. But today, in 2015, I think Earth Day is largely a missed opportunity. Why? Because its message is outdated, it’s aimed at the wrong audience, and it frames the responsibility for environmental stewardship in distorted terms. To recapture its viability, Earth Day needs to change.

To show you what I mean, let me tell you two stories. One comes from the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City in September 2014. After the huge march by thousands of people demanding governmental action on climate change, right-wing leaning Fox News, which barely covered the summit at all, mocked the event by pointing out that New York’s public services had to add extra shifts to clean up trash left behind after the protest. This, in the eyes of Fox News and its viewers, is cause for ridiculing the entire idea of an environmental movement or action on climate change: the people who call themselves environmentalists are hypocrites because some of them littered at a climate change rally! HAW HAW HAW HAW! The “hypocrisy” was evidently meant to serve as an excuse to dismiss the very idea of environmentalism as insincere because environmentalists don’t “practice what they preach.” This was the disturbing subtext of Fox News’s reporting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox News takes a similar tack today, if they even bother to report any Earth Day events.

The People’s Climate March of September 2014 was a tremendous expression of popular pressure on our institutions–but we need a lot more events like it.

The second story is more personal and involves a friend of mine, a young man who is generally good-hearted and sensible. Around Earth Day or its events, however, he becomes snarky and contrarian toward the idea of participating. A couple of times a year you hear about these “Earth Hour” demonstrations where people turn their lights off or endeavor to use less energy for a specific hour or day; news of these events commonly travels on social media. During one of these “Earth Hours” my friend deliberately turned on every light and appliance in his house in an effort to use considerably more energy during that hour than usual, to “make up for” the people who were participating. This person is not, so far as I know, a climate change denier or anti-environmentalist, nor is he politically conservative. He’s just fed up with people “preaching” about how shutting off your lights is supposed to save the environment.

What do these stories have in common? The idea that personal behavior of rank-and-file individuals is the sine qua non of environmental responsibility. Fox News wants to make environmentalism a test of individual moral character: someone who drops a piece of litter at an environmental rally is worthy of ridicule, and taints the whole movement by personal insincerity. My contrarian friend is mocking the idea that turning off your lights for an hour is in any way a meaningful gesture in favor of environmentalism. Both involve personal responsibility, and that’s Earth Day’s message too: only you can clean up the environment, so put a recycling bin in your kitchen. And retweet this banner while you’re at it.

But it’s institutions–entities over which no single person has control, and in which individual will is meaningless–that bear a much greater responsibility for our environmental problems than individual people do. Dow Chemical and British Petroleum have caused far more environmental damage than a person dropping an empty Starbucks cup at the New York climate rally. And the flip side is that both Dow Chemical and British Petroleum, and companies like them, have it within their power to make a far greater impact on reducing carbon emissions and pollution than I can by RT’ing your Earth Day meme or leaving my lights off for an hour. The message of Earth Day has traditionally been, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of the Earth.” But left out of the message is any sense of proportionality, or that some people’s responsibility is much bigger than others. In an attempt to democratize environmental consciousness, most of the traditional Earth Day messages have succeeded in diluting it.

This rather pathetic apologia by BP–the company that committed the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill–is not the sort of moral responsibility by institutions that will address climate change. Much more is needed.

And herein lies the rub. Most individual people–even those who don’t generally identify as environmentalists–wouldn’t dispute the notion that there exists some theoretical collective responsibility, shared by everyone, for stewardship of the planet. But institutions are very bad at accepting collective responsibility, especially on a moral level. I may feel guilty for driving a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon instead of one that gets 40. But it’s somehow seems a stretch to ask General Motors to feel guilty for making a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon instead of making more cars that get 40. But in the scheme of things, if General Motors decided to stop making 18 mpg cars entirely and concentrate on more fuel efficient vehicles, that would have a far greater positive environmental impact than would my personal decision to buy a 40 mpg car instead of an 18 mpg one.

Don’t get me wrong–my argument is not that individuals are absolved of making environmentally responsible choices because our individual impacts are much less than those of institutions. That’s totally not what I’m saying. But we, individuals, generally “get” the message of Earth Day; there aren’t that many people out there who are totally unaware of, or who have total disregard for, environmental sustainability. Earth Day and its usual messages, however, seem to be aimed at reaching that ever-shrinking segment of the population, when Earth Day could and should be focused increasingly on getting institutional actors–corporations, governments, and industries–to accept the same moral responsibility for environmental consciousness that individuals do. This is much more than just pleading, “Please, BP, pay more attention to the environment.” It should be a much more pointed message: “You, BP, and your decisionmakers bear a disproportionate share of moral responsibility for environmental damage, and this moral responsibility must be the primary driver of your actions going forward.”

This is a hard message to get across, and one that will take more concerted effort than a click campaign, a Facebook banner or even a large-scale march in the streets. We can change the attitudes of institutions, but we won’t do it by adhering to the same old rhetoric better suited for 1970 than 2015. You don’t need to tell me to “Recycle! Reduce! Reuse!” You need to tell Exxon-Mobil to get out of the oil business and the United States Congress to pass real binding carbon reductions. That’s a project with a much bigger scope than Earth Day’s limited attention span, I’m afraid.

The header image in this article is by Corey Matsumoto and is used under GNU Free Documentation License.