In retrospect, Earth Day has been a bust. It turned into an annual reminder among privileged Americans to do something about environmental degradation. It became a do-nothing tradition that had little material impact on the environment.
It would have been better to pursue social justice, elimination of poverty, or equal protection under the law, right from the beginning. All paths would lead to improving the environment regardless of the starting point.
Charles C. Mann wrote about the elitist nature of Earth Day in his book The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World:
So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann, page 81.
As data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii indicates, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere continue to increase. The latest reading was yesterday at 420.25 ppm. We may not have understood the significance of such a small part of Earth’s atmosphere on the first Earth Day, but we do now and the numbers continue to roll upward at what can be described as a steady pace. It is as if the environmental movement accomplished nothing.
A climate crisis is happening in plain view. The folks at The Dark Mountain Project described it like this in their April newsletter:
The climate disaster unfolding around us is itself a convergence between the breakdown of ancient organic matter and modern industrial ambition, technology, greed and carelessness, a calamitous meeting of worlds.Email from The Dark Mountain Project, April 15, 2022.
However one describes the climate crisis, part of our problem in taking action to remediate it is we don’t have the intellectual skills to understand environmental degradation or what actions would be effective in reversing it. Likewise, current society has limited functioning methods to take action without a calamitous incident precipitating a need big enough to gain political consensus.
When in 1985 the scientific journal Nature revealed that over Antarctica, a hole in the ozone layer had formed, exposing humans to the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet rays, reactions were mixed.
At the time, President Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Environmental policy hadn’t been a priority for him and his advisers, who were more focused on fighting the creep of Cold War communism or federal involvement in issues they believed the states should handle. Even the revelation of the ozone hole didn’t change things–or at least not right away. In fact… Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel was ridiculed in the press for reportedly saying in a meeting that an international treaty wasn’t necessary to address the damage and that Americans should just put on sunscreen and wear hats.Reagan Administration Officials at First Dismissed the Ozone Hole. Here’s What Changed by Olivia B. Waxman. Time Magazine, April 10, 2019.
As we know now, the Montreal Protocol, the first-ever global treaty to reduce pollution and phase out chlorofluorocarbons, gained Reagan’s support and was agreed in 1987. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty unanimously the following year. Our current political environment has degraded to a point where such common-sense action is no longer possible.
Bill Anders’ Earthrise photograph reminds us of Earth’s suspension in the vast darkness of the universe. We are unique, and dependent on each other on this our only home. For complex reasons, we understand the risks of further environmental degradation and the warming of the atmosphere. We have been unwilling to take adequate action and Earth Day isn’t helping.