Is Earth Day Still Relevant 18 Years On?
As Corporate Sponsors Mount, Some Activists Believe the Charity Strayed from Its Purpose
It was one of the original green movements in Canada, created by environmental activists who had spent their lives protesting big companies that harmed the planet.
Today, Earth Day Canada is a registered charity that relies mostly on money from large corporations.
Founded in 1990, the charity encouraged ordinary Canadians to clear garbage from their communities as a means of understanding the earth's fragility. Today, environmental awareness has blossomed.
Children speak of atmospheric carbon dioxide while lecturing their parents on the evils of the family SUV. Millions of Canadians turned off their lights during Earth Hour. And, corporations send out daily press releases advertising their commitment to green-ness.
Today, as Earth Day Canada marks its official date for the environmental inspiration of Canadians, a certain question begs for an answer: Is it still relevant?
Glen MacIntosh says no.
MacIntosh, spokesperson for the Toronto Climate Campaign, organized a downtown Toronto protest on Sunday, naming it "Reclaim Earth Day." The coalition of unions and social justice organizations take particular offence to Earth Day's sponsorship by corporations. The Earth Day website says Sunoco and the Suncor Energy Foundation sponsored the tree-planting events that unfolded over the weekend.
"The original Earth Day didn't have that. It was mobilized by activists with a point to make change," MacIntosh said.
"People are being deceived. They attend the Earth Day events thinking they are doing a good thing, but really they are being entertained, sold to."
"That is their take," responded Jed Goldberg, president of Earth Day Canada.
"None of our donors has any input whatsoever into our programming, communications, marketing. Nothing. These are our programs. They choose to support them because they feel we are effective, but they have no impact at all in the way we conduct ourselves."
Rules surrounding registered charities like Earth Day, explains Goldberg, preclude the organization from lobbying politicians.
"There is obviously an important place for activism in any kind of social justice movement," Goldberg said. "As far as I am concerned, it is quite healthy for them to have their type of event."
Earth Day Canada, said Goldberg, has evolved from its early days creating community awareness. Today, 80 per cent of its work goes into education, primarily a website that gives tips on reducing energy use, with an online calculator to add up those savings.
There is a finite number of energy-saving tips - using cold water for laundry, buying locally grown food and using transit. Earth Day's current raison d'ÃƒÂªtre shares the same tips found on every other energy-saving website.
Goldberg, however, calls the program's calculator, which measures the dollars saved for each step taken in the "Eco-Action plan," innovative. The organization has spent $400,000 developing the program. It is found on the Earth Day website, but is also promoted on three municipal websites -Waterloo; Moncton N.B.; and Grand Prairie, Alta., with plans to expand.
"We've tried to evolve our programming. It is no longer just a celebratory day. It's not "Rah, rah, let's go plant some trees.' ... We have a program where we engage individuals and lead them through the process of minimizing the impact of how they live in their home."
Maury Mason was one of the founders of Canada's Earth Day, spending the first part of his career with Greenpeace Canada as an activist pushing governments and corporation for environmental change. "There is a value in getting people excited about something. It is a pathway to action," said Mason, who hired Goldberg as his replacement in 1993.
"An inspired, educated and committed person cannot help but act. If the main purpose (of Earth Day) is to create the first step of inspiration ... great. People will move it further," he said.
"Industry and business have to respond to that, otherwise they will be left behind."
City councillor Adam Vaughan threw his support behind the Toronto Climate Campaign, and its desire to push hard for the Kyoto agreement. Still, Vaughan says Earth Day creates no harm.
"The way you grow a movement is, you accommodate the clash of ideas. And hopefully, the movement gets bigger and bigger and you succeed on many more fronts. It is not either-or. I think it is both."
At the University of Toronto, Ingrid Leman Stefanovic has watched the green movement evolve for the past 20 years. Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies, she likens Earth Day to a birthday, a marker to "a time to stop and collectively recognize a testimonial to an idea."
"There are gigantic problems that we have to address. At the same time, it is important that we focus on successes ... There is an urgency, but rather than making people feel negative, we can instill some hope.
"Whether it is Earth Day, or turning off your lights for an hour, no one action is going to be earth-shattering. These kinds of moments simply remind people that you have to be a little more careful, and caring, of the planet."
© 2008 Toronto Star