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It’s Time to Retire Earth Day

An Oak Park journalist's take on the stagnation, complacency and commercialism of Earth Day.

By Gary Wilson

It’s one day from another Earth Day and you can put me in the camp that believes the day has long outlived its usefulness.

Others are more blunt, as an I hate Earth Day Google search illustrates.

Why spurn a day designed to put a spotlight on Earth’s environmental problems?

It’s simple: Earth Day long ago devolved to the point where it reeks of symbolism over substance.

Corporations use it as another selling opportunity. This year Walmart has an Earth Month Music Special featuring Alison Krauss. They’ve also featured items like recycled flip flops. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either product, but the giant retailer’s message is still consume, not conserve.

Walmart exists to get us to consume mass quantities of its products and a little Earth Day window dressing won’t change that.

But Walmart is an easy target.

What about us? Are we any better than Walmart?

Is our priority consuming or conserving? Are we honest with ourselves when we examine our habits?

It’s always best to first look in your own backyard when you ask a question like that so I checked the Earth Day plans of my town, Oak Park, Ill.

Regular readers may remember Oak Park from my commentary last year when it promoted the 350 carbon emission awareness program. The commentary illustrated the contradiction between what the village says – be aware of carbon emissions – and what the village does – promote the use of cars in its traffic management decisions.

Sure enough, Oak Park is having an Earth-Fest in conjunction with Earth Day. I wouldn’t expect less from a town with no shortage of green ego, deserved or not.

The event’s site says it will feature “the local, sustainable food movement… and eco-focused vendors.”  Fifty vendors will participate and sponsors are Citibank, Waste Management and others.

Despite being a village sanctioned event it is focused around vendors. Vendors sell things, which means the emphasis is on consumption – not conservation. That’s typical Earth Day fare so I inquired about the contradiction.

“The reality is that we live in a consumer-driven society and that isn’t going to change,” says event organizer Maria Ornesto-Moran, owner of Green Home Experts.

“The purpose of Earth-Fest is to give consumers information that will empower them to make informed decisions about what and how much they are consuming,” she said.

That sounds good but it’s really doing the minimum, if that.

Like treading water, it will keep you afloat for a while but it won’t get you to shore. I doubt many experts think our consumption rates are sustainable, green products or not.

The incrementalists are similar. They believe every little step like recycling, using rain barrels and driving a hybrid car like a Prius will eventually put us over the sustainability hump.

They perceive they’ve done their part and will tell you so- at least the Prius owners will.

Only good can come from recycling and rain barrel use but those are safe enterprises and don’t require much of us.

As for the hybrid Prius owners, they’re good too but I’d be more impressed if they told me that they’d gone from two cars to one. That would be something to crow about.

And why do hybrid owners not buy another one, as a recent survey showed, when it’s time? Was the first one about symbolism?

I hope not.We already have plenty of symbolism.

How do we get past Earth Day stagnation and complacency?

Earth Day was a landmark event 42 years ago. The saying was “it raised our consciousness.” We were oblivious to the damage we were doing and needed a slap in the face. Earth Day helped do that and we are forever beholden to its founder, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson.  But it’s time to move on.

We need to honor Earth Days of the past then relegate them to the history books because clinging to them is holding us back.

We need Earth Day’s successor.

It should be an event that can’t be hijacked by corporations for marketing purposes, one that takes us out of our recycling and hybrid car comfort zones. It should ask us to sacrifice (politicians won’t do that). Its tenets would be buy less and use less because we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Tech gurus Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t become icons by resting on the laurels of their early creations. We shouldn’t rest on the accomplishments of Earth Days long past.

Let’s hope for a successor event that will ask us to reflect on and be honest about our consumption decisions. One that will help us realize that Earth can provide everything we need, but not everything we want.

Until that successor emerges,  I’ll skip Earth Day.

Editor's note: This commentary is reprinted with permission from Great Lakes Echo, a news project by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.  

CelloMom On Cars April 21, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Try Buy Nothing Day? I've seen some expand that to Buy Nothing Month (you know, food, underwear and other necessities excepted).
IdowhatIcan April 22, 2012 at 03:24 AM
Try the Earth Day celebrations at Trailside Museum. Nothing commercial there. Only local nature: opposums, wildflowers, nature enthusiasts. Let your spirit soar on the spring winds.
Natalie April 22, 2012 at 12:14 PM
I'm going to work on the Mother Earth in my own yard today! http://mothergoosesmiles.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/abundantly-and-remarkably-weedy/

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