Does Earth Day need a day off?

Dear Umbra,

Why does Earth Day make me feel so… weary?

— The Impossible Race to Escape Despair

Dear TIRED,

April 22 can feel a bit exhausting if you are someone who cares about the environment or, to go a step beyond, someone who tries to maintain the integrity of the climate on this big old blue ball. You recycle, even though you know recycling is very flawed. You try not to eat a lot of red meat, even though you know individual action won’t fix climate change on its own. You never miss a local election even though some politicians continue to discuss global warming as a hypothetical. And now the day has once again arrived for you to “celebrate” the planet while being acutely aware of just how much we’re trashing it the other 364 days of the year.

Some context about how we ended up here: The holiday started in 1970 as the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, who had been trying to make environmental issues a political priority in the U.S. for years without any real headway. And the first Earth Day was a resounding victory: With roughly 13,000* demonstrations and events nationwide, it captured the attention of the country on the urgency of the national pollution crisis, which paved the way for the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But after 51 years, Earth Day has buckled somewhat under the weight of the world’s environmental problems. Perhaps because those problems have become increasingly imminent, life-threatening (on a human species scale), and complicated to address both diplomatically and politically. And rather than stake hope in a widespread societal overhaul, many understandably overwhelmed people have adopted the “do what you can” approach when it comes to personal environmental footprints. Indeed, Earth Day’s 20th anniversary in 1990 helped to usher in the idea of green consumerism, complete with big corporate sponsors. Big brands and corporations really took that marketing angle and ran with it right up to today — which is probably no small part of your disillusionment! 

And now here we are in the year 2021, when the issue of climate is more or less mainstream. On the one hand, growing environmental awareness has given us the best chance in decades of just maybe passing some kind of meaningful climate legislation. And yet when, say,  Coca-Cola instructs its brand accounts to tweet “Love your mother <3” on April 22, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our ability to tackle climate change as a society. After all, many of the businesses attempting to greenwash themselves are responsible for the same greenhouse gases, plastic pollution, toxic fumes, illegal land-grabs, and human rights violations that have landed the planet in its current predicament. It can be hard to avoid thinking that a day that was meant to be both celebratory and revolutionary has become so appropriated that it’s a tawdry insult to real progress.

Setting aside a day to wallow in our own cynicism generally does not feel good. It’s exhausting to believe the world is bad or lost.  

I called Elizabeth Kolbert, the Pulitzer-winning environmental journalist who has spent her career covering such uplifting topics as the political machinations that perpetuate climate change, mass extinction, and geoengineering the climate to save ourselves. I imagined that if anyone would be warranted in cynicism, it would be Kolbert. And yet! When I asked her about how she wards off a sense of defeat given her particular beat, here’s what she said: “There just really isn’t any option besides trying to press forward, persisting in the hope that something will be done, even despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.” Or, as Oscar Wilde famously put it, “the triumph of hope over experience.” (Granted, Wilde was talking about second marriages and not the mitigation of climate change, but it works!)

Kolbert’s response really stuck with me. Earth Day has been ridiculed for being too individual-oriented — something along the lines of the “hopes and prayers” approach to societal improvement. But as I remarked to her at the time, there’s something almost religious about her Wildean approach to environmental action because it’s so dependent on faith in a better future. 

And you don’t seem to be asking about how to fix Earth Day as an institution, TIRED. You are asking about how to resolve your feelings about Earth Day itself. You seem fearful of the effect your own disillusionment is having on your motivation, and that is where some quasi-religious practices might actually help. It’s kind of funny to advocate for something so intangible as “faith” on a day that’s ostensibly to bring attention to scientific fact — the measurable and observable degradation of the environment, that is. But a lot of people engage in religious practice to recenter themselves and reassert their values, and I think that something many of us could use right now.

I spoke with Adam Rome, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo who literally wrote the book on Earth Day and asked what he thought the holiday’s founder would think of its current devolution. He emphasized that Senator Nelson never had any expectation that future Earth Days could match that spirit or legislative success, but the day’s cultural trajectory may have been a surprise. Rome says that Nelson “had no idea that [Earth Day] would become a trade show, which it is in a lot of places now, or that some of the discussions that kids would have in school would be with corporate-sponsored materials.”

Because part of Nelson’s real intention was that Earth Day would be about — believe it or not — soul-searching. Environmental issues are extremely complex. That reality forms the foundation of this very column! And change that addresses the root causes (like structural inequality, consumerism, racism) of something as seemingly straightforward as pollution  requires a real assessment of what we want for the future and why. “That’s never easy,” Rome said. “There has to be some struggle, some hard work that leads to it. Gaylord Nelson, I think, hoped that would happen: that people would grapple with the issues in a way that would be transformative.”

Even — or especially? — people who are very wrapped up in the conundrum of climate change on a daily basis can be in need of the occasional moment of reflection. Elizabeth Kolbert said she considered Earth Day to be a good opportunity to spend time with yourself, reflect, maybe enjoy nature. I personally can’t think of better advice. I hesitate to use the term “self-care” because that’s a concept that’s been as cheapened and commercialized as April 22 itself. But if the idea of Earth Day makes you tired, that probably speaks to your exhaustion with the realities of climate change and environmental degradation writ large. And they are very exhausting realities!

I think everyone can agree it is supremely dumb to devote only one day a year to appreciating the Earth. What if, instead of a day spent wringing your hands over greenwashing, Earth Day were the one day you could make a conscious effort to get some hope and energy back? It could be a kind of annual Sabbath devoted to rest and reset and reflection and reappreciation of what we’re all trying to do here: Live on this planet as carefully and as well as we can.

Take the day off, babe, and feel better tomorrow. 

Restfully,

Umbra

*Correction: This story originally misstated the number of demonstrations on the first Earth Day. 



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