The problem with Earth Day

Written by erik


I’m in a bit of a funk. I’ve been mulling over why Earth Day isn’t a bigger deal. After streaming Earth Day tweets including resolutions for a couple days, and reading them through, I think I’ve come to a conclusion: Earth Day doesn’t work, because it stands for too much. We need to simplify.

There’s nothing wrong with being inclusive. When I read that a billion people are going to celebrate Earth Day, I’m encouraged by that kind of mass participation. But when I try to pin down what exactly they are celebrating, and how, I’m not sure I can.

Days and events of religious significance, whether or not they are recognized as federal holidays here in the U.S., usually offer clear intent and meaning, at least to the followers of the religion in question. A Christian might not see the significance of Passover, and a Muslim in America might see Christmas mostly as a break from work, but for Jews and Christians, respectively, these are holy days with significant and precise meaning.

Earth Day surely can’t be that exclusionary. Quite the opposite — it has to be secular in the broadest possible way. In this country, the closest analogy to what Earth Day could become might be Thanksgiving. Americans all understand that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks (OK, it’s not subtle). And I would wager that most people respect the tradition of the big communal dinner at the center of the holiday, a reflection of the meal that happened almost 400 years ago.

New Year’s Eve is another decent comparison. It stands pretty clearly for a new start, as hammered home by the change in the calendar. Or maybe Independence Day, which stands for, well, Independence, or Martin Luther King Day, which stands for civil rights, etc. You would think that after 40 years Earth Day would be starting to nudge its way into this pantheon of secular celebration.

And yet, it’s not. It’s not even close. So what’s going on?

Some people see Earth Day as a day to celebrate of the natural world. Others see it as a day to resolve to limit the damage they do to the planet through their everyday activities. Others tune it out because they can’t stand another reminder that they aren’t as “green” as they could be. But I’m going to guess that for most people over 18 it’s just background noise, a day similar in stature to Flag Day and Columbus Day and Presidents’ Day. It’s not even a day off work, for crying out loud!

Earth Day isn’t tied to a specific event (it’s not Big Bang day). And it doesn’t celebrate a single individual (it’s not John Muir day). And it doesn’t include a shared activity that can become a widespread tradition.

I think this last is our opportunity. Most of us try to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Most of us eat a Thanksgiving dinner (keep it low-carbon). And most of us would like to know just what it is we’re supposed to do on Earth Day.

I don’t think we’re really supposed to do anything. That’s the problem. We need a common moment, similar to the clock ticking over on New Year’s Eve, when we can all look to whomever we’re with and say, “Happy Earth Day!”

I’ve got a simple proposal. What do you say that next year on Earth Day, wherever you are, you get yourself outside for the moment when the clock strikes noon. Get outside, rain or shine, hot or cold, still or windy. Maybe even find a patch of grass to stand on (as opposed to concrete — might take a little walking here in downtown San Francisco). And look around at all the other people outside, and think yep, here we are, on Earth. Isn’t that, after all, what we’re celebrating when celebrate Earth Day?

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  1. Woody

    You’re exactly right, Erik. Having a single holiday to celebrate as broad a subject as “Earth” is the same as if we were to celebrate one holiday for “Religion” instead of Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Passover, Ramadan…all holidays for every religion currently on the calendar.
    The fact that there is a single catch-all day of recognition for everything pertaining to life on Earth demonstrates that our understanding of the importance of environmental issues is infantile at present.

  2. Gabriele

    Seriously? “And look around at all the other people outside, and think yep, here we are, on Earth.” That’s it? That’s your answer? No comment on how entire city’s, and municipalities all “join in” at specific given times for lights out. I think that is more of the “shared activity that can become a widespread tradition” that you were trying to focus this article on than just standing around, isn’t it? Or how about the people who “gather” to plant trees, or pick up garbage, or the companies that adopt cleaner methods of day to day operations. I think that Earth Day stands for a lot more than this ridiculous article is giving credit for. And any little bit will help right now. If you really feel that “for most people over 18 it

  3. dave in kentucky

    Some of the science fiction futuristic films of a post apocalyptic world might have a meaningful Earth Day ( when the earth looks like hell, stinks, etc). Anyone really believing in a change for the earth needs to talk it up, maybe encourage whatever you can and build it up.

  4. Anonymous

    Your article is genius, simply genius, and right on the money

  5. Adam

    Good points and I like the article, however; It’s a way for people to become more aware of what’s happening. Ya, it might be broad and only one day but it also serves as a reminder. For example, you shouldn’t only be thankful on thanksgiving, you shouldn’t just give back on christmas, etc for all holidays. Not everyone will ever celebrate one holiday. Some people have different calenders.
    Personally, a few years ago when I first started to try and have a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, earth hour and earth day were/are great ways for me to make other people more aware. And ever since I made more people aware of these days I know more people who now make steady efforts.

  6. Paul D.

    I like this one the best Adam, right before I read it, I was thinking “power-down” and get out of the “cube” for at least 10 minutes and those that can stand/want to do more can…doing it at noon allows “common” productivity in the morning hours before the shutdown, however, doing it at 10 am would maybe send a stronger message. Earth minute, hour, day, whatever would be great! Thanks.

  7. Eric

    I agree about the communing with nature thing, but my new tradition for Earth Day is to do something to pay back Mother Earth a little for all she has given us. Something more than my ususal environmental efforts. Be it planting a tree or taking a new step toward a sustainable lifestyle, something extra. Also I think the Earth Hour (where you turn off all your power for an hour) should be on Earth Day to add to the significance and ritual of the day.

  8. Anonymous

    Earth Day is largely ignored. Earth Hour is gathering more and more momentum each year. I think it could easily be said that Earth Hour is doing more for awareness of environmental issues than Earth Day ever did (except for kids).
    So what’s the solution…? Earth Day and Earth Hour could be merged to occur on the same day. That gives Earth Day a common goal, but takes away a second day people stand up for the environment.
    It’s clear we have a consensus that Earth Day is too complicated and broad. Earth Day needs a simple, easily achieved contribution to the environment just like Earth Hour has.

  9. stellamojo

    I agree. In my community, there were so many things going on, no one knew what to do, but we all did something, but how does one assess a day such as that, to determine its effectiveness?

  10. Ximpo

    Earth day is, and has been for the past 15 years or so, the quite meaningful holiday in Japan.
    You guys are missing the role of major media in a community and how it affects the way people think and act.
    Prior to the day, there are many national and local TV coverage about the day and some of the events. Although it’s given by the media, people do dig the message and take it seriously.
    It is about the planet and its natural bio-diversity, law of the nature and respecting it. If this isn’t clear enough for most of the Americans, we need to re-think seriously about our education system here.

  11. Rob

    Right on. It’s vague and unfocused. Heck, I’m very green and I’m not even inspired by it! What am I supposed to do on Earth Day? I can’t drink like on St. Patrick’s Day. I can’t buy or make anything like for Christmas. I can’t eat a turkey like for Thanksgiving. I can’t light fireworks and be outside and scream, “DOWN THE BRITISH!” like on the 4th. I can’t even eat an unreasonable amount of dim sum like on Chinese New Year. What am I supposed to do? Not have power for the day? Nice…er, that sucks. Don’t eat red meat? Also sucks.
    “Don’t” can’t be part of a celebration (witness the failure of anyone to stick to Lent), “Do” has to be basis of a successful celebration. Earth Day has no “Do” associated with it.
    Focus and constraint allow for creativity and expression. The holiday has neither of those things. It’s vague and non-specific, and therefore silly.

  12. Bradley T. Morris

    I am one of the co-founders of the Empowerment Organization known as “The GratiDudes.” I believe that Earth Day is a day to come together as a human race and celebrate the beautiful planet that we’ve been gifted as our home. It is a day to look around and appreciate the beauty of it all, to celebrate the inter-connectedness we all have here on Earth and to show our respect to Mother Nature for all that she provides for us.
    We, as “the GratiDudes” have become quite famous around the world for our speaking services and a video we launched on Youtube called, “The Gratitude Dance.” This year we had thousands of people join us on Earth Day for an Earth Day celebratory Gratitude Dance.
    We’re inviting everyone on Planet Earth to join us in the celebration of a lifetime by doing an Honorary Gratitude Dance for our beautiful Planet every Earth Day at 12’noon from wherever you are!
    The Gratitude Dance Video:
    Lets come together for this positive cause and Dance Dance Dance!!!
    Peace and Infinite Gratitude,
    Brad Morris (BradiDude)
    “The GratiDudes”
    Agent of Change / Speaker / Super Hero Life Coach

  13. Mary

    I too, find Earth Day meaningless, but I think it’s because I try to respect the earth in everything I do, every day. So to see the masses just doing one beneficial thing on one day a year, is actually obnoxious. I think they are trying to relieve their guilt for their usual polluting behavior. As for a power down hour, I’d do it, but again, what good is it if most go back to their old ways? I think it should be more in the line of the Smoke-outs, where they actually try give up a bad habit, maybe a different one each year. Start out simple, like using public transportation more, or start shutting off the appliances you don’t need on all day and night, etc.

  14. Rob

    Man, Earth day could be so AWESOME if only it were inspiring in some way. for a great deal of people it just feels like a guilt-ridden day invented by liberals to shame them into something (most of my family and a ton of the people I know are pretty conservative…I have a strong reference base). Come on, now. We can do better than this.
    “Earth Day: Plant a tree!”
    “Earth Day: Plant a Rose Bush!”
    “Earth Day: take a day off and spend time with your kids (who inherent what you do!)” (alright…some guilt in this one…)
    Honestly, I don’t have many good ideas. Just trying to start the brainstorming. It’s just a crappy, boring holiday right now. The best thing that happened this year, as far as I can tell, was that Disney released a National Geographic-esque movie that looks awesome, but I didn’t got to see it.
    Alright, I’m off to plan my Cinco de Mayo celebration.

  15. michael

    …Earth Day…walk or ride a bike…all world wide business shuts down for the day and all fossil fuel burning machines, except those ‘in case of emergency and national security’ shut down for the day as well. No flight travel, not anything fossil fuel related.
    Stay off your cell phones for the day and away from TV…spend time with friends and family.

  16. Dave

    I cannot disagree more with most of the assumptions and statements of the original post. For example:
    The levels and degree of meaning of religious holidays are actually open to interpretation among those of the same nominal religion.
    Earth Day does stand for a commemoration of a notable historic event, that included teach-ins and demonstrations that led to many reforms in the US government administration, including formation of the EPA.
    Finally, Earth Day celebrations do involve something special now, and it isn’t so shallow as standing outside at high noon wondering about our place on the planet. In my town of Columbus Ohio we have been hosting a day of service with environmental restoration and enhancement projects at over 60 sites; and afterwards a celebration with music, eco-information and artistic expression.
    As diverse as this planet and life thereon is, so should be our celebrations and expressions of care for this place we call home.
    I can’t imagine a better way to spend Earth Day, or any day, than in helping to improve our local environment and watersheds which are so threatened by pollution and loss of biodiversity. Learning and sharing steps for carbon footprint reduction is definitely part of the education we shared this year again in Columbus during the “Earth Day: Picture This” celebration which had more participation than any other in the nation, we were told.
    Conversely the “Earth Hour” fad of shutting off all the power for an hour (meaningless for one’s annual carbon footprint) is uniquely counterproductive and shallow. It sends a message that we can’t find a way to sustainability without losing our basic needs– exactly the wrong message. I much prefer the solstice “Candle Night” consciousness and practices which are worldwide, and originated from Japan.
    Acting locally is by far the best way to help the planet and see a real difference from your actions. Make them lasting and meaningful and for more than just a day!

  17. michael

    Couldn’t agree more Dave.

  18. anon.

    The university I work for holds a huge celebration on Earth Day every year. There are demonstrations of ways to help save the planet (ie recycling, composting, water preservation, etc.). There are eco activities for kids also. The point is that maybe people will actually embrace these ideas, even the kids can get involved. It’s a day of learning and a lot of the town gets involved with this celebration also.

  19. Lauryn Slotnick

    Teach someone something. Whether it’s what items can be recycled, the benefits of recycling, that recycled paper works just as well in printers or copiers as non-recycled, about toxins in conventional household cleaners, anything. There’s never been a question in my mind that teaching the less-earth minded why and how they can and should make an effort to protect our planet is the point of Earth Day, even if that’s something we can and should do every day as well.