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Make This Earth Day Your Last!
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Most of the time, we go far out of our way to blog from the sunny side of the street, but today we have something important to say that involves some strong words: Sunday should be the last Earth Day.

This weekend, throughout much of North America and across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people who care about the environment will get together at protests, concerts, neighborhood clean-ups and tree-plantings... and accomplish almost nothing. Earth Day, which every year has become less and less the revolutionary event it once was, seems this year to have entered a new phase of meaninglessness. Indeed, this year it appears to have gone into a form of retrograde motion and begun to move actively away from the concept of comprehensive sustainability that drives all rational environmentalism. In short, Earth Day has served its time, and it must go.

The biggest problem with Earth Day is that it has become a ritual of sympathy for the idea of environmental sanity. Small steps, we're told, ignoring the fact that most of the steps most frequently promoted (returning your bottles, bringing your own bag, turning off the water while you brush your teeth) are of such minor impact (compared to our ecological footprints) that they are essentially meaningless without larger, systemic action as well. The strategy of recycling as a gateway drug -- get them hooked on it and we can move them on to harder stuff -- has failed miserably. We can do better.

It is, essentially, the politics of gesture, little different than wearing a rubber wrist band or a pink ribbon, and, such a politics is primarily a means of raising money for large NGOs while making regular folks feel a little better about their relationship to a terribly flawed system. It's a broken model, and we can do better.

If the politics of gesture weren't bad enough, Earth Day is rapidly becoming a firestorm of gestural shopping. Marketers today will shamelessly slap the "green" label on nearly anything, including things that are demonstrably stupid and ecologically steps backwards -- Hello? A solar-powered bikini? WTF? -- encouraging us to mistake shopping therapy for strategic consumption. We've said it before, and we'll say it here again: you can't shop your way to sustainability, and we can do better.

What may be worse is the recent plethora of "green issues," "green guides" and special Earth Day sections that have blanketed our media. A decade ago, we would have been excited to see green ideas (even lame ones) given such prominent play, but these days, such editorial eco-ghettos strike us more as an admission of skewed priorities, with ecological sanity presented as a product feature, like a well-designed cupholder, rather than as a fundamental strategy for avoiding widespread collapse.

Of course, perhaps we're less concerned than we ought to be about widespread collapse because the catastrophe has so far overtaken not wealthy white people but poor people of color in poverty-striken regions like New Orleans, Haiti, Rwanda and the Sahel. Here, too, the message of Earth Day is disheartening: while we mark the day in part to help our kids feel a sense of environmental responsibility, on a planet where climate change alone already (by conservative projections) kills 150,000 people a year (think, roughly, of a 9/11 every week) and the forecast through much of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East calls for nothing but climate misery, the other 364 days of our year look like a smokestack-sized raised middle finger. As we've discussed before, we're by no means immune to the problems we're doing the most to create, and our society's inability to sustain itself, not terrorism, is what ought to really keep us up at night. But with what Jared Diamond calls "a global Somalia" unfolding around the world in large part because of our voracious appetites, our continuing to treat sustainability as an optional good deed fails, somewhat understandably, to lessen the moral contempt many elsewhere feel for us these days. We can do better.

Doing better will involve, first and foremost, setting a hard bar against which to measure our actions. That bar sits at the level of a one-planet life. Could every person on the planet live like us without destroying the biosphere? Are we at least taking actions which will make our lives and the lives of others one-planet in time to avert disaster?

And time is of the essence here. It looks like we have at most four decades to cut our ecological impacts by a factor of ten, and the longer it takes us, the deeper the cuts will need to be and more painful the consequences will prove. It is also entirely possible for us to fail completely, with the best of intentions, by not acting boldly enough, quickly enough. Three decades would probably be a safer target. Seen in this light, the solar bikinis and greenwashing campaigns cluttering up this Earth Day no longer look benign or amusing. They're taking attention and costing us time we might spend creating real change -- and time lost is catastrophe brought nearer. In an era, as Dana Meadows reminded us, when we seem to be running hard up against the limits of so many natural systems, the ultimate limit turns out to be time.

That measure -- one planet, three decades -- should be the gold standard against which we judge all activism and politics, commerce and innovation. And though we can't say precisely how profoundly we must change or exactly how quickly, we can't let ourselves or others off the hook in that regard: the numbers are close enough to be terrifying. One planet, three decades.

With that goal in mind, one fact pops out: you can't get there alone. None of us can. It is not possible to for an average person to live a reasonably prosperous North American (or even European) lifestyle and reduce their footprint to one planet by themselves.

This point is worth pausing on, because so much of the green marketing BS around us tells us that the planetary crises we face are our fault, that it is our responsibility to fix them and that buying products which are marketed as "green" will fix that problem. The myth of individual lifestyle responsibility is so strong, most of us don't even comment on it anymore. But in many ways, it's a lie. What most needs to be changed in the world are the systems in which we are all enmeshed, and we ourselves, acting alone, are almost powerless to change those systems. To do that, we need better information, stronger connections and new ways of thinking.


Our world is opaque by design. It is very, very difficult to get good information about the ecological and social cost of the products we buy and the services we use, or even of the actions of the institutions where we work. That's not an accident. Transparency empowers, and it's not really in the interest of anyone who benefits from the status quo to empower average people to judge whether their products, services and organizations are doing good things in the world or not.

Which is exactly why transparency is so important. If we're serious about dramatically reducing our footprints, we need to know the true impacts of our actions. We need to know the backstories of all the objects and services in our lives. We need the flows of energy and resources and money that once were hidden from our sight to be made visible. We need complete transparency in public life, so we know our governments (which are ultimately the most important shared levers for action we own) are working (and on who's behalf). And we need all this information revealed in ways that interest and delight and outrage and inform us, through projects like Background Stories and FarmSubsidy.Org and reHOUSE/bath. Knowing the true backstories of our lives is not only the first step to changing our own behaviors intelligently (through strategic consumption, for instance), it's also the best way to make clear the need for combined, collective action.

When we know the origin and the journey of things, as well as the departure route and final resting place (or ideally, the place of reuptake into a circular system), we gain tremendous empowerment and autonomy in creating a sustainable world. This is a move from cradle-to-grave processes into a cradle-to-cradle approach, in which we generate no byproduct that can't be employed in the manufacturing of something else useful. This is the "3 R's" reapplied to a 21st century context, where it's not about recycling the plastic bottle, it's about closing the loop at the bioplastic bottle-making plant. Until this happens, we are implicated in a footprint much larger than the size of our own feet, no matter how vigilantly we strive to shrink our personal impacts. No North American can achieve a one-planet life until we reduce our continental footprint, so let's go hack those systems. If we take control of the information flows, we can.

Stronger Connections:

We have our parameters: a high bar on sustainability, and a pace that can outrun the passing of time and degradation of the environment. We have our guidelines: absolute transparency in government and corporate operations, knowing the backstory of the things we buy and use, and closing the production loop on those things through cradle-to-cradle design. Now we must assemble our team.

All around the world, we are meeting each other, exchanging cards and ideas, and beginning to come into an awareness of ourselves as something new -- not a movement, really, as much as a sort of emerging caucus for reality. "The two omnipresent parties of History," said Emerson, "the party of the Past and the party of the Future, divide society to-day as of old." The party of the future is on the side of innovation, solutions and creativity. That's us, and if we don't win, the party of the past will leave to us the broken future we're glimpsing in places like Darfur. So we need to start playing to win.

The magnitude of the challenges daunts us all, of course, but it shouldn't. Every day, the community of people who understand the stakes we're playing for grows, and we become more brilliant and able. Already, loose networks exist -- of designers and architects, engineers and hackers, activists and electeds, union leaders and CEOs, neighborhood advocates and local businesspeople, church leaders and artists -- of future-focused people dedicated to trying to figure out how to ignite this transformation.

If running Worldchanging has taught us anything, it is this: there are a hell of a lot more of us than any one of us tends to think. And we have millions of friends out there (from all walks of life) who lack only an understanding of the challenge and the possibilities to become feisty, useful allies. Most people do not want to destroy the biosphere or ruin their fellow human beings or impoverish their children. We have an incredibly important asset on our side: our position is the only sane one.

What we need now are much stronger connections between the various camps of people who are all charging forward determined to build a future that works. We need an explosion in information sharing and mutual education, across borders and across disciplines -- almost a second Enlightenment, where through open debate and fresh thinking and artistic brilliance, we join together to banish ecological ignorance and transcend social irresponsibility. If that doesn't sound fun, you're reading the wrong site.

New Ways of Thinking:

We know now that one planet lives, conceived properly, will be better lives. Many products that are more sustainable are also better made and beautifully durable. Green homes -- with natural light and fresh air and good insulation -- are more comfortable than McMansions. Vibrant neighborhoods with nice streets and parks and a strong community offer a better quality of every day life. Fewer toxic chemicals in the air means less asthma and cancer; better food and more walking means less heart disease and diabetes; less driving means fewer people killed and injured in accidents. Waste is expensive, bad design is expensive, and the money we save eliminating both can leave us better off than we were. We can build lives which are bright green and prosperous.

Bright green economies will be the drivers of 21st Century business. The future belongs to those enterprises and agencies that capture the markets for wind power and other clean energy, water purification, clean tech, advanced vehicles, and the sorts of appropriate technologies (like rainwater harvesting and LED lights) needed for sustainable urban living at the bottom of the pyramid. That path leads to the future, and the wreckage of companies and countries that can't learn to think differently will line the way.

Right now, emerging nations are copying a model of development they know to be flawed, ruinous and a dead end -- our model -- but no other model exists. If we reinvent ourselves, we can light the way to a new kind of development, one which the billions of people rightly clamoring for more prosperity can actually build for themselves. We also know that a one-planet life looks different in Senegal versus Switzerland, Brazil versus Bangladesh. Those who a pioneering breakthrough innovations in design, industry, health and technology, carry a serious responsibility as a force of influence for what's to come around the world, and that influence will play out in a thousand ways.

Becoming leaders in that transition by embracing new thinking will help restore to those of us in the U.S., the respect we have lost in much of the rest of the world. Thomas Friedman argued in his New York Times piece last Sunday that in fact this "green blueprint" might be the only hope remaining we have (in the U.S.) to repair and reestablish productive, harmonious international relationships. And if those of us who have been laggards and obstructionists -- Americans, Canadians, Australians and others -- embrace collaborative leadership on sustainability and social innovation, the world's prospects will improve dramatically.

So what we need is a dramatic break with the past. Earth Day accomplished its mission; the environment is now near the top of the global agenda. By making this Earth Day our last, we can signal that the time for mere awareness is over, and the time for real transformation has arrived.

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Maybe Earth Day as it is can be a little empty. But what about the case for making Earth Day a GIGANTIC global event? After we spend all year trying to develop sustainable products, lifestyles that work in our individual corners of the real world, on Earth Day, everyone gets to be part of a one-day-only dream tank. Put down the realistic pressures and restrictions of economic necessity, path dependence, etc, and everyone jump into a swirling ocean of exuberant creativity. Come on in, World, the water's warm (and getting warmer)!

Posted by: Nathan on 19 Apr 07

I agree, why not do something big? I was watching the movie Ghandi the other day and it reminded me how effective non-violent civil disobedience can be. What if we organized a march down major highways across the US during rush hour? Sure, this would be a major headache to drivers and would probably cause some arrests in places, but it would get attention. It's probably too late to organize something, and besides, Earth Day is on a Sunday this year, but still, there has to be something we can organize on future Earth Days to make it more meaningful.

War protesters do it all the time but that isn't even an issue that needs more attention - like the author of this article said 150,000 die because of climate change. That number is going to be much higher if drastic measures are not taken.

Posted by: Chris Schultz on 19 Apr 07

Yes, it's time to move from small steps to larger systemic action. And larger does not mean bigger protests and events, it means pushing for actions that have real and measurable improvements for the environment. In my opinion, it's about moving from individual gestures to engaging companies and governments and getting them to make changes based on available ideas.

Posted by: eugene on 19 Apr 07

Alex & Sarah - thank you for the beautiful articulation and tying it all together in your post. i love world changing - i love the shift in consciousness - i love the closed loop.

truly 'how you do anything, is how you do everything'. i was given this teaching a year ago and now i know how it applies.

how can i help?


Posted by: rob on 19 Apr 07

"We've said it before, and we'll say it here again: you can't shop your way to sustainability, and we can do better."

There is an ad for conflict free DIAMONDS next to this paragraph. hmmmm.

I only point this out to further your sentiment. I greatly appreciate your words and mission.


Posted by: Jason on 19 Apr 07

Agree that the little gesture is not helpfull.

But we CAN and must shop our way to being sustainable. By choosing sustainable we kill unsustainable businesses.
People will not simply stop consuming. So consume smart.

1. Buy an electric car next: GM Volt, Miles Javlon, Tesla WhiteStar all on schedual for 2009. If you can stand going just 25 mph, get the Zenn or Zap now: both about $12000.

2. Replace all the bulbs with CFLs, not just one.

3. Buy a clothesline and pegs.

4. Buy gift certificates for Al Gores TVA green energy, and give them to everyone on your Christmas list. Its OK that its not in your state.TVA has grown wind and solar exponentially in the last 5 years.

Posted by: Susan K on 19 Apr 07

I made a similar argument about the monthly 'Critical Mass' bicycle ride/protest that has been going on in London (and other cities) for more than a decade. In London at least, things have moved on, and Critical Mass does more harm than good, at least that's my view.

Turning to the issue of backstories and transparency, some of us at are rather taken by the idea of applying the principles of transparency in farm subsidies to a broader food production agenda. We would like to see farmers and food producers able to produce pictures and descriptions of their food production methods to shoppers - maybe by using existing barcode technology. I know that one of the benefits to me of shopping at a farmers market is being able to talk to the farmers about how they made their produce, reared their animals, grew their crops. Taking this level of interaction between shopper and producer to the mainstream retail level could be very powerful. It's not too far-fetched in tech terms.

These issues are elaborated in greater detail in two excellent recent books about the food: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Organic Inc by Sam Frommertz.

Posted by: Jack Thurston on 20 Apr 07

As John Lennon said, “We tried Flower Power in the 60’s and it didn’t work. So what!! Find something else and try again.”

We need to make sure we don't send the message that all the recycling and "paper, not plastic" feel-good efforts of the last thirty years weren't wasted -- they just aren't enough any more. Otherwise, a lot of people will feel like they were lied to.

But it's definitely time to fix the system. I'm constantly surprised by how many people are consciously aware of the need for change -- but the choices aren't out there. For example, if someone wants to live in a co-housing community, they almost always have to start their own, and that's something most people don't have the energy for.

Posted by: Michelle on 20 Apr 07

What evidence do you have that Earth Day has deflated from its previous grandeur? None, really, because Earth Day has never been the momentous occasion that you've touted it as in your article. It has always been a means, though not always effective, of organizing people who take interest in the environment and of giving them a day to celebrate our connection with the Earth and to make public the acts of healing that many of us engage in year-round. Bringing about systemic environmental change such as building LEED-compliant homes and buildings, closing the usage gap on manufactured materials, and moving away from the internal combustion engine and coal-fired power plants does not mean that one must eschew Earth Day as a passe, ineffectual means of promoting global well-being. Contrary to your implications in the article, Earth Day is not a eulogy: it is a celebration and a recognition, and should be perpetuated as such. And as for your apparent disgust with people printing "green brochures" and producing "green" merchandise, well -- aren't they attempting to do the same thing as you, when you print your voluminous "Worldchanging" book, and when we all are burning hydrocarbons to post and read your blogs? Fiberglass, metals, and plastics are used to build the windmills of tomorrow, and if people print green brochures to help educate the ignorant, then it is worth the paper it's printed on. And it's also okay for the people to make money off of it, too. After all, we must eat.

Posted by: Allen on 20 Apr 07

Bravo Alex and Sarah,

You've made a strong statement pointing out "the elephant in the room" - a very obvious fact that is not being discussed.

That is, we live in a finite world and have been on an energy binge that cannot continue.

As editor-in-chief of the Earth & Sky science website (, I hear constantly from scientists who hold this opinion, but who have no idea how or when to express it to people.

It's much like another scary fact that was being discussed by scientists from the 1970s on ... the fact of a global warming that is (at least partly) caused by humans. Scientists discussed global warming among themselves for decades also before many decided to take strong stands on the issue this year. Now those of us who follow the global warming story on the internet know that the public is now extremely confused by loud minority voices ... and that the whole issue of global warming has now become obscured in the worst kind of 21st century "babel."

Will the same happen to the issue of western over-consumption? Will people refuse to talk about it ... refuse to think about it ... ? All signs point to yes.

But articles like yours give me hope ... and inspiration. Thank you.

Deborah Byrd
Earth & Sky

Posted by: Deborah Byrd on 20 Apr 07

Excellent piece. The stress on purely personal choices undermines any chance of the social change we need.

I was keynoting an Indiana Service Learning conference yesterday and some students had done an alternative spring break helping gut damaged houses in New Orleans. They were hugely moved by the experience, and have been talking about it to fellow students and local civic groups ever since, but in terms of further action all they could think of to do was to raise money. The idea of pressing for common political action simply wasn’t on their radar.

Paul Loeb, author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While

Posted by: Paul Loe on 20 Apr 07

I obviously agree that industry and larger systems need to change, and am glad to hear a critique of the green fad which has arrived too hollow, too late, but I am alarmed by statements like "We have an incredibly important asset on our side: our position is the only sane one." Everyone thinks that about their own stance: anti-abortion activists, anti-gun control activists, anti-regulation lobbyists. It's reminiscent of the kind of thinking that created the problems.

Posted by: Jill Peterson on 20 Apr 07

Earth Day is not the problem. The problem is the millions of people and the legions of organizations who don't care at all about Earth Day. Radical, systemic changes are clearly needed. However, to say that personal actions right now are pointless is just wrong, and frankly counter to your assertion that radical change is needed. Those radical changes are going to mean radical changes in personal choices and individual actions. If those big changes are going to have any chance of coming about, or sticking, it is going to involve millions of people doing the best they can do given their real lives and responsibilities right now, while pushing for the bigger changes we need. We need to encourage everyone to start living in the right direction, and doing the very best that they can right now -- and Earth Day helps to do that. The people living in the right direction will be those required to bring radical change. Bashing Earth Day is the environmental movement equivalent of left wing political infighting. That's not worldchanging. That's self-defeating. Work to make Earth Day better.

Posted by: David C. Brock on 20 Apr 07

This is a great article. Thanks for writing and posting it.

Posted by: Andrea on 20 Apr 07

Uh... the *diamond* jewelery ad next the article? What was that about changing lifestyle consumption?

Posted by: Celeste Dye on 20 Apr 07

The problem with Earth Day is the same as that which blocks any government movement towards substantive green issues and sustainable living. There's a large disconnect between a person's beliefs about sustainability in abstract and the means he is willing to permit to achieve sustainability. Earth Day is the furthest we can go where everyone agrees. If we begin to push for more, we run hard fast into conflicting attitudes that are fundamental to proponents of each side's world view.

A commonly referred to concept on WorldChanging is the idea of ecologic footprints and One Earth. This is something that everyone can agree with in abstract but no one can agree with in implementation. Feasible approaches to One Earth simply don't allow for social stratification. I have a degree. My employer hired me over other applicants. I get paid more than others because my work and my ability are worth more (in an economic sense) than those others. Why should I be required to have the same footprint as they do? A fair society would reward people as each person merits. But that would cause an uproar among everyone below the average. Why should they have to bear the brunt of sustainability, when it's in everyone's advantage? Any egalitarian attempt at doing the same would cause an uproar among everyone above the average. Why should I be limited to the same consumption as any blue collar factory worker that dropped out of high school? Why have I spent my life working as hard as I have been if it doesn't grant me any greater benefit?

People simply do not agree about sustainability and the cost both to society and to the individual to achieve it. Earth Day lets us ignore this ugly fact by concentrating solely on the fluff that we all do agree on.

Posted by: Michael Young on 20 Apr 07

Great thoughts - I agree completely. I found it comforting that you quoted the New York Times magazine article that Mr. Friedman wrote. He talks about how if we are smart and work quickly we don't have to revert to sticks and twigs.

I noticed the ring advertisement also but in light of what was said about working back and understanding the path that everything takes to our home it is not necessary to give up everything. Diamonds can be ok.

The NYT article is very much worth reading if anybody has not read it yet.

Posted by: pam on 20 Apr 07

I'm a classmate of Andrew (maker of the Solar Bikini) and I think your invoking his project is a bit of a straw man. Our grad program sometimes straddles the line between product research and artistic practice, but knowing some of his other projects (somewhere between performance and video art) I can say this isn't likely to appear in stores or catalogs to satisfy the guilt complexes of green-friendly beach goers.

A better critique might be: artists need to find ways of becoming more direct with their audience about important issues, abandoning the safety of irony without being too didactic.

Posted by: Dan Phiffer on 21 Apr 07

I think it makes sense that personal choices of what to buy aren't enough for fixing global warming. But I think wise consumption introduces a principle that is essential - while we need plenty of government regulation, and action by NGOs, we also need EVERYBODY to make a thorough personal transformation. And I think being willing to redefine the values by which one consumes is a kind of personal transformation that can open the door to deeper ones. I don't know what those deeper ones would be? Get more people to be activists?

Posted by: Nathan on 21 Apr 07

I like the point you're raising, but I think you've gone too far. Earth Day itself is not at fault, and neither are those stalwart liberals carrying their own coffee mugs. The problem lies - and always will lie - in the inertia of the masses.

Your hopes of improving participation through some alternate call to consciousness-raising are likely to stumble over the same obstacles as Earth Day did, I fear.

The solution instead lies in figuring out how to improve the footprints of people who will never altruistically change their lifestyles. Perhaps this is what you mean by changing "the system." But to effect truly large-scale change, that system needs to change without their participation.

In a way, we have to root that the climate change skeptics are proved right. That they wake up in 30 years to find the world has survived. Not because global warming didn't happen, and not because they admitted they were wrong and recycled their SUVs. But because society shifted under their feet and they, like the rest of us, found themselves buying sustainable energy, telecommuting, using efficient technology, etc.

You can't give people free will and then expect them all to follow you. But they are at least likely to travel down roads that have been paved for them.

Posted by: Hugh on 21 Apr 07

Thanks for the inspiring piece. It is unfortunate how good intentions unfortunately often remain as such.

I agree with Hugh that likely the systems will need to change under the skeptics feet without any effort from them. Life is full and often overwhelming for even the most active and best informed. The shift in people buying organic isn't because they are going out of their way to buy it, it's just become more available to the masses. So, perhaps the focus needs to be on what it takes to change those systems and then, like most other change, it will be the few that impact the many.

Posted by: Monique on 21 Apr 07

Alex and Sarah, thanks for a thoughtful and provocative essay that calls "bullshit" where it's sorely needed. As an advocate of human-powered transportation I have often felt the same sense of frustration with the similarly ineffective and empty gestures of "Car-Free Day" in September. My two-wheeled friends and I now refer to it as "Bike-Free Day," because that's the reality.

I just returned from our local Earth Day fair, and there were SUVs everywhere. Granted, quite a few people arrived on foot and by bike, but they were far outnumbered by the Escalades and Expeditions. That's the reality, too. Everybody was, no doubt, feeling really good about saving the planet. Yes, we can do better.

As others have mentioned, I think the challenge for all of us is to start living radically different lives, to serve as examples of the kind of change that is needed ("Be the Change," as the bumper sticker says). When people finally decide to recycle the Escalades, they need powerful examples of change to follow. Indeed, witnessing others leading rewarding lives with tiny carbon footprints may be the catalyst for their own rejection of the hyper-consumer model.

Where essays like this one from Alex and Sarah can lead is to a new set of standards by which we can live. There is no need to be dogmatic about this, but in creating new models like the one-planet standard we can offer a compelling alternative to the destructive metrics of consumption.

Thanks again for pointing a way out of this futile kabuki of empty gestures.

Posted by: John Baxter on 21 Apr 07

I agree there needs to be something different done for Earth Day. I see ED celebrations as just a cover for big corporations to shill their products, instead of promoting change. The ED festival this past Friday in the major metropolitan city I work in was right outside in the park amongst the buildings for the Fortune 100 company I work for. While half the booths atempted to teach attendees about the dangers of dumping chemicals down the sewer, or where they could sign up for renewable electricity, the other half were groups just promoting their products (which had no relation to Earth Day or conservation), my company included. Ironically, my company was one of the title sponsors of the event, with a big booth getting people to sign up for one of many products we sell, yet there is no place in any of the 5 high-rise buildings I work in to recycle glass, plastic or metal! (Most) Big corporations just don't get it.

Posted by: Joe on 21 Apr 07

Hi Alex & Sarah

I think that your "one planet, three decades" message has an urgency that many people cannot comprehend. In the UK, we face a similar situation in light of the recent Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and the recent IPCC report. Action is needed now to produce the societal change required to stabilise global greenhouse gas emissions because climate change is already happening and we need to act to stop it getting worse.

Since the revival of the environmental movement in the 1960/70s, following the publication of books like Silent Spring, Population Bomb and Limits to Growth and the birth of the UNEP, how far have we come in the last 30 years? Well, take your pick of indicators - greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, per capita ecological footprint, waste production, etc. - and they have all got worse in the last three decades despite legislation becoming more stringent.

The potential success story of the last decade is that businesses have recognised the environmental agenda is fundamental to future growth, and that is reinforced by the Stern Review - "If we are not 'green', we will eventually undermine growth". The difficulty for business is that it is almost impossible to reconcile a 10-30 year plan for change with 6-monthly financial reporting requirements. It remains to be seen whether initiatives like Beyond Petroleum (BP), Ecomagination (GE) and the Earth Challenge (Virgin) can deliver the required change.

A briefing on your "one planet, three decades" message summarising your rationale for action based on recent science, the action required and the timescale for change in political institutions and markets would be most useful. It could allow us to track progress over the next decade and use it as a reference point to decide whether actions on Earth Day, or any other day, are moving in the right direction fast enough.

In ten years from now, in 2017, it will be the 30th anniversary of the Brundtland report, the WCED's "Our Common Future", and we should set that as a collective milestone to demonstrate that we have learnt how to reconcile our societal aspirations and need for economic stability with the limits of our beautiful environment and that we are world changing. The challenge for us now is to provide the evidence to support the claim and to continue to be the change that we want to see.

Here's to getting there together.


Posted by: Sonny Masero on 21 Apr 07

After reading the article AND the comments, I had a thought that may have merit, and might just be brain lint, but since the primary problem (other than the fake green labels) is the "what about the other 364 days?" thing.

Maybe what's needed is more, not less. Declare one day a week to be "Change the Weather" Day - or something that isn't that corny, maybe -and I can't think of a more appropos' one than SUN-day...Promote future-thinking concepts everywhere on a weekly basis and they will not be so ignorable. Plus, since it's a weekly thing it's less of a paean and an excuse for speechifying and posturing, and more of a routine practise. I dunno...just a thought?

Posted by: mesila on 21 Apr 07

Just watching "Cool fuel" on the science channel. All fuel farming hype. No mention of renewable electricity in plugin carts as the cleanest fuel. Oh well, business as usual.

No amount of feel goodness will do the job. Only actual creation of actual demostrable devices that can't be denied can do it.

They are out there right now, ignored by mass delusional media. at least the barely noticed blog world exposes some of these solutions.

Posted by: amazingdrx on 22 Apr 07

Alex and Sarah, Thanks for saying eloquently what I have always felt. Earth Day is like Mother's Day - remember your mother one day a year and feel guilt-free the rest of the year. Sitting here in Bangalore, India where even the gesture of being green is missing, I really wonder what Earth Day is all about and is it really an EARTH day.

Everyone feels happy with their consumption as long as they can switch to organic/fair trade/conflict free/hybrid/what have you. While good, it is not enough. What about actually making the hard decisions to reduce or just reuse?

We recently launched this website - SocialWay ( that enables people to share stuff (lend-borrow, give-receive instead of buying). It has been hard convincing people that they should borrow (for free) rather than buying their own, leave alone lend out their stuff to others.

It is so much easier to just go buy a book and feel good that it was made of recycled material rather than checking a library or asking your friends. Why? I think the reason is that, while it reduces the carbon footprint (a book has a carbon footprint of a gallon of gasoline), borrowing requires a change in the way we like to live and consume today.

I am not very optimistic about one planet, three decades. I hope I am wrong and that we indeed can become what Thomas Friedman calls the Greenest Generation.

Posted by: Nita Goyal on 22 Apr 07

Transform it. This is ALL about transformation, which always starts within. Here in Sheridan, Wyoming we've done a 4-week film series at the public library on global warming, participated in the Step It Up Rally, held a Global Warming Cafe ( to start people on the path of household CO2 reduction, done earth arts projects in the schools and at the YMCA, held a Concert for the Earth featuing local musicians poets and artists, sponsored a book discussion on organic gardening...AND planted a tree in the city park, all "in the name of" Earth Day.
Your attack is misplaced. Transform YOUR Earth Day into what you want it to be before you tell others what it should be.

Posted by: Ainslie on 23 Apr 07

i'm not sure what everyone else did at their Earth Day but at ours here in Brookings, South Dakota we talked about eating local food, the effects of traditional agriculture on water quality, using alternative transportation and kids learned to dance like a thunderstorm...i'd say none of this = 'retrograde'.

maybe a good article would be asking around and finding out what people DO do on Earth Day??

Posted by: erik on 23 Apr 07

After listening to your depressing SXSW podcast I had to come view the website. I was pleased to see that you weren't happy with all of the earth day garbage. I hated to see Oprah tell me that I could change the world by screwing in one funny looking lightbulb! How stupid is that?
Anyway, after hearing the new term "ecological footprints" I decided to drive around all day (on earth day) to see how I could make my footprint bigger. As I drove I started to wonder why nobody mentions the hole in the ozone anymore? At the rate it was shrinking when everyone was shouting that the world was coming to an end, the hole must be HUGE by now! It must be so bad that scientists and eco-lovers are afraid to tell us how big it really is. I drove some more and wondered how I could find out.
Frustrated that my footprint wasn't big enough yet, I went home and turned on all of my lights. (I use 100 watt bulbs. 60 watts just isn't enough!)
I probably could have done more, but then I decided it was "One small step for man, one giant ecological footprint for Big Al."

Posted by: Big Al on 23 Apr 07

This is, in short, the best article of declaration I've read coming out of WorldChanging. I often find myself in a state of loving criticism with your work, because often enough, optimistic celebrations of solution-focused thinking feel _unitized_ rather than systematic. Straws that filter any water source into safe drinking water are indeed awesome tools with great potential. But these kinds of achievements start looking like solar powered bikinis when we don't address the embedded processes and institutions that compromise water supplies and lack of access to technological solutions facing the people who need those solutions the most.

So thank you. I'm often inspired by the technologies featured on WorldChanging. I hope that this article is the beginning of more featured strategies, structures, and systems that leverage those technologies. I'll send you what I harvest, too.

Posted by: Rasha Abdulhadi on 23 Apr 07

I attended our local earth day celebration this year, where I noticed that grocery chains were giving away samples of their organic foods in small, single use plastic cups.
They didn't even see the irony in this action.

Posted by: Kerrie on 23 Apr 07

I didn't have/make time to do anything specifically "Earth Day" this year. I didn't run down to Oakland city hall, or the Home Depot in Emeryville for free CFLs, or even to a park. I didn't have time--I was at the laundromat for part of the day.

The one bright spot was bicycling with my housemate to the neighborhood farmers market--she rarely bicycles--so this was the green icing on my 1-layer day. She mentioned that Earth Day is lame--that it should be Earth Year, every year. I wholeheartedly agree! Can't wait for Oakland to start accepting all plastics and not just narrowneck bottles.

Cheers to WorldChanging; kudos Alex and Sarah for enriching our collective morning reads. Is it any wonder green writing comes out of Seattle? I just read "The 9 Nations of North America" by Garreau, who mentions that Seattle is part of "Ecotopia" -- completely makes sense for WC and Grist to be Sea-based.

Posted by: Ken Ott on 23 Apr 07

Hi Big Al, the hole in the ozone layer is diminishing (that means "getting smaller") because intelligent people took action. Anyway glad you've embraced the "new" concept of carbon footprinting (first mentioned around 100 years ago) and allied yourself to the healthy satirical stance of a 12 year old.

Posted by: Mark on 24 Apr 07

Thanks for this article. I'm so tired of listening to people who think that simply recycling some of their garbage is going to save the planet.

Posted by: Kris Shanks on 25 Apr 07

Another patented "man bites dog" soliloquy from Worldchanging.

Posted by: From on 1 May 07



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