On Earth Day, President Obama asked us to remember Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. But as Nelson himself admitted, he wasn't the one who should be held responsible for Earth Day's success. He wrote,
"Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. ... That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."
Earth Day was a movement borne by personal conviction. It was a peace movement -- virulently anti-nuclear and informed by opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a political movement. Individuals clogging the streets of New York City raised environmental protection in the consciousness of the politicians and decision-makers who passed the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day organizers challenged the idea that what was good for corporate America was good for the rest of America. They stood against profiteering and consumerism, in favor of conservation and stewardship.
Senator Nelson's words contrast highly with the recent words of Senator Lindsey Graham. Corporate support, Sen. Graham says, is necessary to pass climate legislation.
This is corporate support of the environment: in California this year, Chevron -- an oil company -- is headlining an Earth Day event, along with Pacific Gas and Electric. If their event was proportional to the size of the pollution they spew, it would be the largest in the state. Disney's giving away eco-caps in exchange for empty soda bottles, while Nestle has made their water bottles environmentally friendly by giving it an "eco-shape." It baffles me to think that a movement that once prided itself on a moral conviction that looked far beyond the brazen pursuit of profit, materialism, and personal gain has been co-opted by the shortsighted and opportunistic.
Today's corporate environmentalism applies the same theories as the consumerism that the original Earth Day stood against. Green is no longer a color, it's a corporate tactic to get someone to buy something. If Shell can swaddle its advertisements in soft blue-greens and say it's planning to shift away from drilling dirty tar sands oil in Canada, it can get away with ramping up production in those same tar sands and making money at the expense of people from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. If Chase Bank can open a "green" branch, it can get away with financing mountaintop removal.
Instead of inspiring the creation of legislation or a robust regulatory agency, this year's Earth Day seemed to exist to build hype for an energy bill that's already in the pipeline and which many are afraid will take away the Clean Air Act's limits on greenhouse gases.
Instead of a peace movement or a political movement, instead of the uprising of millions of individuals concerned about the state of the world in which they live, Earth Day has become a political and public relations stunt. It says, "Lend your voice to getting something done." But it doesn't urge anyone to ask what that "something" is, and it doesn't educate anyone about climate change or any of the environmental challenges facing the world today. Instead, it just says, "Buy this stuffed animal. Drink this bottled water. Have a free bumper sticker."
Thursday morning, I awoke to a barrage of statements about Earth Day. Politicians, corporations, and organizations alike celebrated the fact that Earth Day had turned 40. We were told that we'd come a long way since 1970, that together, we'd reduced the sludge in our rivers and the smog in our air. And while the headlines read "Happy Anniversary," a drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana burned and sank, spilling thousands of gallons of crude oil and diesel into the Gulf of Mexico and leaving eleven families without their loved ones.
BP, the company moving "Beyond Petroleum," which had leased the rig, pledged to help and offered full support to Transocean, Ltd., the owner of the rig, but avoided corporate responsibility. The corporate focus of Earth Day stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of the Goldman Environmental Prizes, which were awarded in Washington, DC on Wednesday night.
Each year, the Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to grassroots leaders from around the world who are working to protect the environment and promote environmental justice. Thuli Makama, who works for our sister group Friends of the Earth Swaziland, was a prize recipient this year. She has advocated for poor, rural communities who have been forced off of their traditional land so it can be used for big game hunting.
The body in charge of the big game preserves is not a government agency, but a private company named Big Game Parks. Without fear of prosecution, Big Game Parks has killed people in these local communities, claiming they were poaching. The company has literally gotten away with murder by purporting to protect big game and conserve the environment.
But Thuli has been able to challenge Big Game Parks's legal immunity and the constitutionality of the law that allows Big Game Parks to patrol the parks. Her successes, as well as the successes of other Goldman Prize recipients, stand as proof that around the world, the spirit of the original Earth Day still exists. But it's not in a corporate boardroom or the marketing division of a company. It's in the people who organize themselves and whose passion for justice compels others to act.