What was conceived as a national environmental teach-in and day of radical action against corporate polluters, 45 years later, Earth Day has seemingly grown into little more than a gimmick.
On April 22, 1970, the inaugural Earth Day was celebrated by more than 20 million Americans who marked the day with widespread discussions, environmental clean-ups, and demonstrations demanding that the political establishment wake up to looming environmental destruction.
"The reason Earth Day worked is that it organized itself," said the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.), who founded the holiday. "The idea was out there and everybody grabbed it. I wanted a demonstration by so many people that politicians would say, 'Holy cow, people care about this.'"
The Environmental Protection Agency was created in that same year, followed by the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Now, observers note that the dominant voices on this day are not environmentalists or protesters, but many of the corporations whose drive for profits has only hastened many planetary woes. Case in point:
— Marriott Internat'l (@MarriottIntl) April 22, 2015
What can YOU "flip" this Earth Day? We're chatting all about products you can upgrade to save energy! #ENERGYSTARChat
— ENERGY STAR (@ENERGYSTAR) April 22, 2015
— Uber (@Uber) April 22, 2015
— NHL (@NHL) April 22, 2015
— Disney Store (@DisneyStore) April 22, 2015
As Katie Herzog wrote for Grist on Wednesday, the rise of the corporate state has eclipsed any serious efforts to save the environment.
"In such a rigged system, Earth Day doesn’t stand a chance, and so this widely celebrated international phenomenon has lost its relevance," Herzog stated. "It is a Band-Aid, a pat on the back, a Facebook like. It’s dumping a bucket of ice water over your head for ALS or wearing a pink ribbon for breast cancer. It’s nothing more than a symbol. We don’t need Earth Day or Earth Month or even Earth Year: What we need is for those in power to stop working for industry and start working for the people."
Washington Post journalists Justin Moyer and Nick Kirkpatrick question if Nelson himself would even celebrate Earth Day in its current iteration. Noting how the political will to make drastic moves has fallen even as the Earth's temperature continues to rise, they write: "So, the United States still hasn’t ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The messaging of the day may be lost amid promotional products and greenwashing. But we do have Earth Day T-shirts and hoodies."
In a tribute to the late muckraking journalist I.F. ("Izzy") Stone, author and activist Naomi Klein on Wednesday called the celebration of Earth Day a "comfortable party," and wrote that "the ecological movement will get nowhere if it fails to connect the dots with other overlapping crises facing our society, from racism to militarism to inequality."
Klein quoted Stone, who gave a foreboding speech at the National Mall in Washington D.C. on the very first Earth Day accusing the holiday of "providing cover" to endless war, profiteering, and civil rights abuses.
There’s no use talking about Earth Day until we begin to think like Earthmen. Not as Americans and Russians, not as blacks and whites, not as Jews and Arabs, but as fellow travelers on a tiny planet in an infinite universe. All that we can muster of kindness, of compassion, of patience, of thoughtfulness, is necessary if this tiny planet of ours is not to go down to destruction. Until we have a leadership willing to make the enormous changes—psychological, military, and bureaucratic—to end the existing world system, a system of hatred, of anarchy, of murder, of war and pollution, there is no use talking about buying more wastebaskets or spending a couple of hundred million dollars on the Missouri River.
The prescient Stone concluded: "If we do not challenge these fundamental causes of peril, we will be conned by the establishment while basic decisions are being made over which we have very little control, though they endanger everything on which our future and the world’s depend."