The annual tradition of honoring Planet Earth is coming up again on April 22nd. Even though the founders of Earth Day claim international reach and support, it seems to me its essence is quintessentially American. Earth Day as a custom embodies the Western world view of the environment as the “other.” On Earth Day we tend to objectify and celebrate our Environment Earth and do green things for a day, like recycling. One of you (us anthropologists) out there has probably done a study of it Earth Day in its cultural context.
Knowing that I was going to do a blog spot on Earth Day for the AAA, I found myself musing about what Earth Day means to us with my friend Fani – also an anthropologist. Nowadays musing over coffee really means Skyping, because she is in Georgia. But we mused nonetheless.
We discovered that neither of us has ever been to an Earth Day event, even though they are ubiquitous over the years. I worked for the federal government, and every single agency has special events and activities devoted to Earth Day – of course in concert with their mission, whether it’s housing or clean oceans. Why haven’t we been to any Earth Day celebrations and how broad is that experience?
After all, Earth Day will be celebrating its 42nd anniversary this year, the first one being April 22, 1970. On its web site, Earth Day organizers link the event to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In fact the 1970’s were marked by bipartisan support for far-reaching environmental laws, in part due to Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring but also growing awareness of human’s impact on our streams, rivers, and air. 1970 marked the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A whole raft of environmental management laws were passed in the 1970s. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Coastal Zone Management Act and the original Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act 1976, and 1976 the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for solid waste management.
Arguably the 1970s were the last time we were able to agree as a civic society and body politic on the importance of the environment in multifaceted and sweeping way. Certainly the attempt to deal with climate change policy—another opportunity to affect sweeping environmental changes—ended in a dismal failure (but how that happened in the topic of my next blog).
Why haven’t we been engaged? My friend Fani opined that she never felt motivated to go to Earth Day events. She grew up absorbing all this stuff. She and her progressive parents were already “there” living in an earth-friendly way. I grew up in a conservation-minded household in California where water was more valuable than gold and all God’s creatures had a place in our homestead ecology.
So we mused about whether Earth Day has been effective and reaches out to people who don’t ordinarily think about things like renewable fuels, waste, wastewater, and solid waste disposal. We suspect that it does reach people at some level – it works as environmental education, in a way, especially for children in schools where teachers can package Earth Day with other earth science topics and get kids outside to experience Earth. There are more kids nowadays that don’t get outside than ever before – that don’t experience the environment. The “no child left inside” movement is evidence of this.
Perhaps, we thought, it’s a generational thing – and that now there’s a generation of people who grew up with it. Is it still relevant now? Do we need a wholly different concept to re-direct peoples’ attention to the complex of phenomena that cause climate change? As the Chair of the newly formed AAA Task Force on Global Climate Change, I am constantly musing with friends and task force members about the phenomenon of climate change and all its human dimensions and impacts. It is the next environmental and humanitarian crisis, it’s not limited to the U.S., and it’s happening now across the globe. Earth Day came from a time in our social history when we had bipartisan support and social momentum for widespread environmental change within the U.S.. We are now at a different point in our social history with highly polarized views on climate change and the environment. We need now a fundamentally different way of thinking about ourselves as part of the environment rather than the environment being “out there” where we can “fix” the problems with technology. It is fundamentally more complex than the problems of the 1970s, which could be regulated in (for then) typical top-down, command and control regulatory policy. New ways of envisioning ourselves as part of the climate machinery are needed for the future. I invite you to follow and comment on these blog postings surrounding this Earth Day.