Wednesday, 22 April 2009

On Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. There are thousands of events happening around the world to raise environmental awareness. Whilst I don’t want to knock the efforts of NGOs, community groups and schools to get people thinking and acting “green”, Earth Day has sometimes looked to me like a free pass for some corporates and celebrities.

The US energy secretary, Dr Stephen Chu, had a point when he said:
“I would say that from here on in, every day has to be Earth Day.”
The first Earth Day was held in the US, way back in 1970. It led to the enactment of two landmark pieces of federal environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. [For some background, click here] Other countries followed suit.

Nearly four decades on, however, the notion of a single “Earth Day” each year now seems somewhat vague and inadequate alongside the magnitude of environmental and human crises that the world now faces.

We could have, for instance, a “planetary emergency day” (designed to spur action to mitigate climate change), a “water day”, a “conserve nature day”, a “clean air day”, a “clean energy” day, a “zero waste” day, an “Earth Charter” Day, an “environmental justice day”, an “environmental peace day” . . . the list of possibilities is almost endless.

Joseph Romm of Climate Progress has argued (mostly tongue in cheek, I think) for April 22 to be rebranded, so as to encourage more people to be aware of the damage we are doing to the planet. He has a range of suggestions and then concludes:

“What the day — indeed, the whole year — should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations. Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can’t preserve ourselves if we don’t preserve a livable climate, and we can’t preserve a livable climate if we don’t preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.”

Dr Chu said he would observe Earth Day. He was speaking in one of those “one minute interview” formats, so he did not fully develop the argument. Joseph Romm was being partly serious, partly humorous.

Yet both their comments about Earth Day touch on a bigger, more important point: the urgent need to go beyond 1970s-style politics when it comes to facing up to the ways in which people are harming the planet -- and ourselves. That means reframing the crises and opportunities that are still too easily pigeon-holed as “the environment” into a cause that is more all-encompassing, more human, more personal and that matters the all of us all the time. That sounds looks like one for every day of the year.

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