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The Last Earth Day

This article was written by Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich in April 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

trash%20can.jpgMost 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.

Make This Earth Day Your Last! is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Great article,

If we are going to make a difference, first we must get real. Here are two simple thoughts.

First, outlaw ALL cool aid kind of drinks, that come premixed. Tons of fuel is wasted moving the water they are premixed in. Mom's, if you love your kids, mix up the cool aid yourself.

Next, outlaw all disposable diapers. Look, kids poop. Wash diapers out, poop gone. Stop filling landfills.

One more... use a travel mug. Self explanitory.

Unfortunately, none of those are "feel good" solutions, they are get off your arse solutions, which is what it's going to take, to GET REAL.

Thanks for listening,

Mr. Twenty Twenty

Posted by: Mr. Twenty Twenty on 16 Sep 08

As this is "archive" month at WorldChanging, I really must applaud this view point as I shared in 06 and Mongabay nailed in 08 by linking his post.

These last 4 years of "green hype" and "green greed" have been very hard on lifetime conservative environmentalists and it reflects in these posts.

Just sharing my "recycled comments from Jeremy's post

In a world where "Save the polar bears" through buying insignificant GREEN products sells headlines over obvious large-scale, meaningful actions... your takes on Earthday are very refreshing.

Jeremy - Outstanding summary of where we are today and how troubled environmentalists have become tired of the commercialization and short lived insignificant actions of "just a Day" event.

"the collective consciousness of the world is changing." because of people like you sharing the true voice of overwhelming environmental problems we face and the media chooses to ignore for their own marketing agendas.

While I am also "no longer a fan of Earth Day." I am now a fan of yours ;-)

Christopher Haase -
QUOTE: "So long as we continue to work, despair will be washed away by hope." - Jeremy Hance

Posted by: Christopher Haase on 18 Sep 08



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