Sustainability: The Problem with Earth Day

This past Sunday, April 22, marked the 48th Earth Day. Earth Day was created in response to the growing instances of environmental degradation across the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. The goal was to garner nationwide support for political action on environmental issues. The movement was, at least in part, successful. The Environmental Protection Agency was created the same year as the first Earth Day, and the 1970s proved to be a peak of environmental policy, giving the U.S. the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. The first Earth Day, and its subsequent tradition in this bygone era, was critical in establishing the environmental movement and mobilizing both citizens and the government to action. Today, however, Earth Day doesn’t have quite the same impact. 

One of the biggest problems with Earth Day in this new era is the complacency that surrounds it. It is likely that, on Earth Day, your Instagram feed was full of posts that all had some variety of pictures of people in the outdoors with a caption relating to Earth Day. This type of action is great in the sense that it can, in some ways, serve as an outlet to voice your support for the health of the environment to a wide scope of people. The problem is that everyone else who saw your post about Earth Day is likely also in support, at least to a degree, of protecting the environment. In reality, it’s preaching to the choir, and the result is that it creates a sense of complacency around what Earth Day is actually trying to accomplish. It is really easy to post on Instagram, voice your support and feel accomplished in doing so, but when pretty much everyone else agrees with you, it can’t really be considered successful advocacy. 

While there are those who take it to the next level of advocacy with demonstrations and community service in support of the environment, the reality is that the environmental state of our nation, and world as a whole, is not improving. One day a year of environmental advocacy and action is not enough to solve the problems that we face today, and when it is the only day of the year that these issues are significantly raised for many Americans, complacency seems to be the norm for the other 364 days of the year. 

Earth Day is no longer the face of a successfully mobilized environmental movement. It may never reach this status again as the environmental issues we face today are vastly different than those of the 1970s, and have equally different solutions. In the era of mass species extinction, non-point source pollution and rampant anthropogenic climate change, our environmental issues are more complex and our response has to be more significant as a result. We need more lasting action and advocacy moving forward. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. However, opportunities exist to become more actively involved in support of the environment. I would argue that the single most significant way in which the environmental community as a whole can create a lasting impact is to show up on election day. Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder of the Environmental Voter Project, found that for the 2014 midterm elections only 21 percent of registered voters who were self-proclaimed environmentalists showed up to the polls, as opposed to 44 percent of all registered voters. People’s support for environmental action in the U.S. is not translating into going to the polls. The 2018 midterm elections that will be occurring on November 6 are an excellent opportunity for the environmental community to show up in force and have a significant impact on influencing the promotion of environmentally-minded policy and politicians cross the country. Earth Day may no longer have the same sway that it once did in driving environmental action, but the opportunity to create significant change always exists on election day.

Contact Seamus Crowley at [email protected].