Tomorrow (April 22, 2016) is Earth Day. I care deeply about environmental matters. I believe that climate change is, by a huge margin, the single most important problem facing the world and the United States today. Where political candidates stand on environmental issues is very important to me in deciding how to vote. I study, and teach, environmental history. At this moment, nothing is more urgent than dealing with our mounting environmental crises. You would think with all that I’d be pretty enthusiastic about Earth Day. I’m not. In fact, I’m dreading it.
The term “greenwashing,” which you may have heard, is a rather derogatory public relations term. A company that makes an environmentally harmful product will often change some token characteristic of the product, or adopt a policy that appears environmentally responsible, and then rebrand their product or company as “environmentally friendly”–even when the actual environmental harm they do isn’t significantly reduced. The signs you see in hotel rooms telling you to hang up your used towels on the rack in order to save the planet is a form of greenwashing. But it’s not just companies that do it. We, ordinary citizens, can and often do greenwash ourselves and our own behavior. Often we’ll express our concern for environmental issues by taking a simple action, and one that’s not tremendously consequential, and then feel that we’ve discharged our duty to care about the environment. Putting an empty Coke can in a green bin in our kitchen makes up for the tens of thousands of air miles we travel each year, or the environmental waste that goes into making the new iPhone we just bought. It’s not that we don’t care about the environment or that everyday actions don’t make any difference. It’s just that we assume erroneously that our own individual actions are far more consequential, both morally and environmentally, than they really are.
Climate scientist James Hansen, who first sounded the alarm about global warming before Congress in 1988, gives a terrifying assessment of recent scientific discoveries.
And this is what bothers me about Earth Day. It encourages and reinforces this greenwashing of our own minds. Do you recycle? Will you sign this petition to your Congressman to demand he vote against the Keystone Pipeline? Would you consider buying a Prius for your next car? We’re comforted by these actions, and taking one day out of the year to pay a little bit more attention to the environment than we usually do is not a bad thing in itself. But the problem is that, because this is about all ordinary individuals can do, the support for environmental issues rarely translates from the individual level to the level where it really counts: the institutions, like government, corporations and industries, whose actions have far more impact on the environment than even politically-motivated masses of individuals do.
The problems of climate change are staggering, and they’re increasing–fast. The video I’ve embedded in this article makes that point clearly and chillingly. I’ve written recently about how I’m struggling to come to grips, morally and historically, with the magnitude of the climate change problem. Listening to James Hansen talk in this video, prattling on about buying a Prius or installing recycle bins in your kitchen is small issue to the problems he describes. If we’re going to solve–or even survive–the problems of global warming, we need a vast and fairly rapid change in almost every major economic and political institution on the planet. Earth Day isn’t really about this. Earth Day is about whether you recycle or buy local products, at worst, or at best about that old chestnut, “raising awareness.” It’s not about divesting Exxon-Mobil from the oil business or realigning the laws of economics. I guarantee you that Exxon-Mobil is paying very little attention to Earth Day.
“The Tap,” a powerful allegorical film made by high school students, won a contest on climate change films. It illustrates simply both the awesome scope and the immediacy of the problem.
I believe that our major world institutions will change profoundly as a result of the effects of manmade global warming. In some cases that change may be dramatic and revolutionary, in others perhaps not–but very little of it will come about as a result of the kind of thing Earth Day is about. Yes, we should recycle and lead cleaner lives and vote for politicians who want to do something about climate change, but that’s not where the real action is going to happen. Historical forces far bigger than the individual, or the collective political will of individuals, is going to be the major driver of human response to climate change. It’s not true that we citizens and individuals don’t have a voice, but events like Earth Day are diverting our voices in the wrong direction. It’s not about recycling and buying a Prius. It’s about our survival as a species, about the way we will have to choose to reorganize our society on its most fundamental level. Not only do I not see Earth Day making any meaningful impact on that huge question, but I see it as deceiving us by making us think that being environmentally responsible really is about recycling and buying a Prius.
Consequently, I have little use for Earth Day. My reasons for being unenthusiastic about it may be cynical, but at least I feel they are realistic. Earth Day and its participants mean well and are genuinely committed to something positive. But right now the nation of Kiribati is sinking into the sea. In contrast to that, which bin I put my Coke can into doesn’t seem like it’s going to help all that much.