Remembering The True Meaning Of Earth Day

As we celebrate Earth Day, it is important to remember its true significance. The concept of Earth Day was put forth in a 1969 UNESCO conference held in San Francisco. In the United States, it was brought to fruition the following year as a result of the efforts of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin. Nelson was deeply concerned about the effects of the 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and envisioned Earth Day as a large-scale teach-in about environmental responsibility.

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Today, we often associate Earth Day with groups of school children filling garbage bags with trash at their local city park. Indeed, many of us participated in such activities when we were in school. All kinds of events - from cleaning beaches to planting trees - are held on Earth Day with the goal of promoting environmentalism. However, while these activities are certainly worthwhile in their own right, they do not necessarily promote the true message of Earth Day.

Earth Day was intended to be an opportunity to learn about and focus upon the importance of environmental responsibility in daily life. Nelson proposed the teach-in as a reaction to an oil spill, so perhaps classes and serious media discussions about realistic ways to reduce our oil consumption would be more appropriate. In addition to planting trees and picking up garbage, perhaps we could have real conversations about how to structure our lives such that we use fewer resources and create less waste to begin with.
These conversations could take many forms. They could be classes and forums held at community centers and schools, for example. Though similar classes likely exist, there are not enough of them and they are not the face of Earth Day. Events that encourage real conversation do not get as much media attention as beach clean-ups and the like. This is the case because such events are less visually interesting and more difficult to report upon very quickly, since they invite more in-depth discussion.

Photo courtesy of Ethan Oringel

I would like to see prominent politicians and public figures engage in a televised conversation about ways in which they would make work to help Americans live more environmentally responsible lives. It could take a format similar to that of that of the Presidential debates, but without the arbitrary rules and time limits that make intelligent discussion nearly impossible. This kind of media attention could bring attention to issues like public transportation, for example. Compared to many places in the world, particularly Europe, our public transportation system is sadly anemic. Why don't politicians prioritize investment in our public transportation infrastructure? Not only would it benefit the environment, it would also potentially create jobs. These are the kinds of issues the media should be emphasizing on Earth Day. Not beach clean-ups that last one day and have little real impact upon either the health of the beach or the daily habits of the participants.

I recently read this article by Sarah Laskow in Good Magazine asking whether millennials are less committed to protecting the environment than older generations. The article refers to a new study published by the American Psychological Association that surveyed high school freshman and seniors from multiple generations about their practices and attitudes toward the environment. The long-term study includes 40 years of data from surveys distributed to 9 million young adults.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

The findings show that millennials are three times are significantly more likely than baby boomers to say they have made "no personal effort at all to help the environment." Fewer millennials cut down on electricity, drive less, or turn down the thermostat to save energy, the article says.

However, Laskow argues that millennials are concerned with helping the environment, they just don't make the show of it that their parents did. She suggests that millennials have become rather cynical about programs to "save the rainforest" because so many of them were drawn into these programs in elementary school, only to see now that the rainforests are still in danger. As someone who (just barely) qualifies as a millennial, I can attest to the truth of this. But, Laskow points out, millennials are likely to share cars, ride bikes, buy products from environmentally responsible companies, and eat less meat.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

What this says to me is that millennials are starting to get it right. While there are some areas in which millennials could improve, there are others in which they are doing quite well. And millennials are making changes to their everyday lives. While they may not volunteer with groups that work to clean up the environment, they are likely to ride their bikes to work everyday. And it is this kind of change - shifting our lifestyles in such a way as to promote responsible habits - that is likely to have the most significant positive impact on the environment over the long-term. While volunteering to plant trees or clean parks is certainly a good idea, changing our habits is what will actually protect the environment. And that is what Earth Day is truly about.

For more Earth Day information Sarah recommends this series of videos produced by The Nation and On Earth Productions called "Peak Oil and a Changing Climate."