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Now That it's Over, Here's Why I'm Not Earth Day's Biggest Fan

Green garbage trucks at Wilshire Center Earth Day in Los Angeles, 2008 | Photo: LA WAD/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Now that the festivities are mostly over for the year, I'll let you in on a little secret: I don't think much of Earth Day. Neither do many of my environmentalist associates.

Oh, we'll spend time sitting at literature tables in civic center plazas and on college campuses, taking advantage of a temporary public focus on the environment to advance whatever cause it is we're working on, whatever organization we're working for. It's usually worthwhile. Though many people who show up at Earth Day events are there to load as much green-branded swag as they can into their SUV with the Keep Tahoe Blue sticker on the rear bumper, you do meet a few people here and there who are honestly looking for some way to work to defend the planet.

Meeting people like those is worth spending a day sitting in the sun on a folding chair. But I do wish there was some other way to arrange those meetings, because for the last quarter century Earth Day has been an opportunity for greenwashing and hype. Much of the useful activity gets drowned in the PR from corporations and government agencies. And that's a shame: the day could be so much more meaningful.

The first Earth Day, in April 1970, took place in a context of increasing activism and discontent in the United States. The Vietnam War was at its height, as was opposition to that war, and the backers of Earth Day -- including Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson -- saw the holiday as a way to harness some of that activist energy for environmentnal pursuits.

That did backfire in some circles: for a couple of years, Earth Day had a reputation among anti-war activists as an attempt to distract young activists from the "real issue" of ending the war.

That sensibility didn't prevail for a number of reasons. There was clearly an environmental emergency in progress, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught fire the year before due to a staggering load of volatile chemical pollutants. Though the 1969 fire was merely the 12th or 13th time the Cuyahoga had caught fire in recorded history, with a worse fire in the 1950s, the blaze inflamed public outrage.

No known photos of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire exist, but that's not true of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill that took place that same year. Up to 100,000 barrels of oil leaked from a burst line in the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field, coating beaches and wildlife from Ventura to Goleta, as well as along the coasts of the Channel Islands. Press coverage showed distressing images of doomed seabirds and marine mammals, upsetting people nationwide.

In that context, and with a vibrant anti-war movement spreading across the country, it's no surprise that the first Earth Day in 1970 was an activism-oriented event. There was little in the way of slick public relations material from corporations or fundraising appeals from green groups' development offices. Instead, scientists and students, hikers and birders, activists and academics converged nationwide in a series of what were, back in the day, called "Teach-Ins." They were grassroots information-sharing events that brought fledgling sciences like ecology, environmental toxicology, and other related fields of study to a new audience.

They were also remarkably badly funded. But that didn't seem to matter: the first Earth Day inspired a new generation of environmental activists, yours truly included. The public image boost it gave to the environment helped assure the passage of landmark environmental laws: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the next two decades, Earth Day essentially followed that model: a loose network of organizations centered holding rather low-key informational events at college campuses and high schools, in community centers and churches.

But in 1990, that changed. A group of large environmental organizations approached Denis Hayes, who had coordinated the first Earth Day, and asked him to make the 20th anniversary happen. Hayes and his Earth Day 1990 expanded the celebration outside the confines of the U.S. into 141 countries.

True to form in the American environmental movement, another group formed to promote the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day as well: Earth Day 20, spearheaded by activist and energy tech exec Edward Furia. Earth Day 20 had a much more grassroots focus. The two groups did not always cooperate.

Most people didn't see the results of the friction between the two groups, and by any objective standard 1990's Earth Day was a triumph of organizing, with 200 million people taking part to some degree around the world. But that success came at a literal cost. The grassroots effort of 1970's Earth Day, with its folding tables and its mimeographed posters, was transformed by an infusion of corporate cash.

Earth Day 1990 wasn't shy about soliciting corporate donations: in fact, the group's whole "business plan" for the event was to get sympathetic businesses to play a highly visible and supportive role. "[O]rganizers expect virtually everyone in environmentally related businesses, from health food stores to publishers of environmental books, to jump on the bandwagon with publicity, sales and events to stimulate participation," wrote the New York Times a year before the event.

Earth Day 20 organizers took some well-aimed swipes at Earth Day 1990 for the latter group's corporate connections. That same New York Times article quoted Earth Day 20 board member John O'Connor of the National Toxics Campaign dinging Earth Day 1990 for inviting Hewlett Packard's President and CEO John Young onto its Board. HP was a leading corporate opponent of controls on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a top environmental concern at the time as the Montreal Protocol limiting the substances had just gone into force.

Those arguments didn't gain much traction outside the offices of environmental groups, but the results were obvious on the morning of April 22, 1990. Earth Day events still had the hastily assembled table displays from grassroots groups with sign-up sheets on clipboards wielded by bright-eyed volunteers. But they also had a group of participants not in attendance in 1970: corporations like Chevron, Waste Management, and Monsanto. Trade groups for chemical manufacturers, coal mining companies and nuclear power plant operators bought prominent Earth Day ads in national media.

This wasn't necessarily the fault solely of Earth Day 1990 organizers: the climate in the mainstream environmental movement had grown increasingly corporation-friendly since 1970. But Earth Day 1990's corporate tone changed things. Recycling was the watchword of the day. The event did lead directly to a sharp increase in recycling program availability and participation. But it did so by persuading millions of people that solutions to environmental problems were as simple as sorting your trash into different colored buckets, with no real lifestyle changes necessary. The thought of addressing resource depletion and bulging landfills by buying less stuff was paid polite lip service but basically ignored, except by the grassroots.

There were counterpoints. A new term, "greenwashing," came into common use as Earth Day drew near, describing attempts by polluting corporations to give their activities an eco-friendly image. A group of radical environmentalists blockaded the New York Stock Exchange on April 23 as a deliberate retort to the feel-good nature of the previous day's corporate love-fest. The "Earth Night Action Group" in Santa Cruz County responded to Pacific Gas & Electric's sponsorship of Earth Day events by downing power poles in the south part of the county. "PG&E corporate absolvement through support of Earth Day is a farce said the group in a communiqué to the Associated Press. "If PG&E's commitment to the earth were real, Diablo Canyon would be shutdown."

Those critics of Earth Day didn't go away, and they shaped history in campaigns ranging from the timber wars in the Pacific Northwest a few years later to this decade's Occupy movement. But Earth Day's path was set. For about five years, since Chevron launched its "People Do" campaign, corporations had been looking for new ways to defuse environmentalist criticism of their practices. Coming just a year after the ecologically and politically disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill, Earth Day 1990 must have seemed like a godsend.

The seed planted in 1990 took root and blossomed. Two years later, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world's assembled environmental groups and activists watched as corporate-backed negotiators rewrote the very language of environmentalism, taking the word "sustainable" and applying it straight-faced to projects like clearcutting rainforests and mining coal.

Here in East California, the resulting alliance between big green groups and big corporations has played out in the destruction of a staggering amount of desert wildlands for utility-scale renewable energy projects, for highways and mines, for landfills, for suburbs given the green light in exchange for protecting distant wilderness. Nearly a quarter century after Earth Day 1990, the mainstream environmental groups and companies like Google and Goldman Sachs and Bechtel argue politely over how many desert tortoises or golden eagles can be allowed to die to keep the economy robust. Grassroots environmentalists have been defined out of the equation. Well-funded "stakeholders" make the decisions. NGOs with budgets in the millions negotiate politely with corporations that stand to profit at about the same magnitude for each environmentally destructive project.

Like Earth Day 1990's focus on recycling as the only topic really worth discussing, Earth Day 2014 focused on climate change. Like recycling, climate change is another issue that's incredibly important, difficult to solve without changing the structure of our economy, and replete with claimed quick fixes. And like recycling, the only personal approach to climate change that does anything at all to address the actual issue is to consume less.

That isn't an easy sell for Earth Day's bottom-line conscious corporate sponsors.

Still, I can't entirely give up on Earth Day. In among the PR assaults from the greenwashers you still find those bright-eyed activists with clipboards sitting at folding tables. You still find staff of local agencies with schedules for e-waste pickup and free low-flow shower heads.

In other words, you still find people honestly trying to make a difference who are asking for our help.

Maybe we just need to reclaim Earth Day for people like that.

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