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Why I Hate Earth Day II: The Road To Hell In Baby Steps

By Sharon Astyk

23 April, 2010
Casaubon's Book

A number of commenters to my previous post argued that I'm being unfair to Earth Day - of course, there's greenwashing. of course people are cashing in, but underlying the greenwashing, there's something good and serious and worthwhile there and I'm being churlish to deny it.

And in some ways, I agree that both points are true - I am a little churlish about Earth Day, and there are some good things about it. For example, because Earth Day is an established "holiday," (it comes in after Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and probably before Father's Day and Groundhogs Day in minor holidays by my estimation ;-)) communities will often invest some money in a public festival. Kids learn that we take environmentalism at least as seriously as we take getting Dad a new necktie once a year, and sometimes they actually learn something. Grownups might change their lightbulbs or read the free papers on how to save electricity.

But I'm sticking with my point. There are two reasons. The first is that I don't think that the greenwashing is superficial, but fundamental. That is, we live in a society where 70% of the economy is based on consumer purchasing. It is not just a case of individual retailers "cashing in" or "greenwashing" - we live in a society that tells us that we can make a fundamental difference by purchasing very marginally different products.

And most Earth Day programs send the same message. They say "you too can make a difference...and it will be convenient, mostly involve shopping and won't change your life. Here, take some baby steps, change your lightbulbs, plant one tomato" and come listen to some folkie music! I understand why this message is the mainstream environmental message - it is friendly, it is warm and fuzzy, it is accessible. And for forty years it has been offered in various forms and we've seen the results - we're consuming more resources than ever before, our planet's situation is far more precarious than it was 40 years ago, and there are real doubts about whether we can actually live with the results.

Has our Environmental Consciousness Made Things Better?

Most people will say that in fact, we've made enormous progress on the environment. Look at the wild turkeys! Look at the results of the clean water act! Per capita, we're emitting fewer pollutants! Guess what, we've got the lead out of our paint! The rivers in the US don't catch fire anymore. Consider an AP story from today, headlined on yahoo as "Dangers to the Planet Now Largely Invisible!"

Pollution before the first Earth Day was not only visible, it was in your face: Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. An oil spill fouled 30 miles of Southern California beaches. And thick smog choked many cities' skies.

Not anymore.

On Thursday, 40 years after that first Earth Day in 1970, smog levels nationwide have dropped by about a quarter, and lead levels in the air are down more than 90 percent. Formerly fetid lakes and burning rivers are now open to swimmers.

The challenges to the planet today are largely invisible -- and therefore tougher to tackle.

"To suggest that we've made progress is not to say the problem is over," said William Ruckelshaus, who in 1970 became the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency. "What we've done is shift from the very visible kinds of issues to those that are a lot more subtle today."

Well, yes, this true and it is good, except that the dangers aren't actually invisible unless you are lucky enough to live in the rich world. If you live with the heavy smog of newly industrialized cities in the Global South, pollution isn't something that is far away. If electronic waste leaks mercury and heavy metals into your groundwater, pollution isn't magically invisible - you can see the vast piles of e-waste from the rich world, who have made their troubles better, largely by shifting things out of sight,.

In the net, quantities of nearly every major pollutant have risen, not fallen over the last forty years. Air traffic has risen by a factor of six, with all associated pollutants. We recycle 38% of our paper, but we're turning trees into paper at double the rate of 1970. We have doubled the number of fish we extract from the ocean and tripled our fossil fuel consumption.

Our cheerleading about what we've accomplished in America is true, as long as we don't consider other people's children to count as much as our own. As a recent UN State of the Earth Report assesses:

From a global perspective the environment has continued to degrade during the past decade, and significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all regions. Progress towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues-even though technology and knowledge are available to do so....

In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental responses, and renewable resource constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental problems such as climate change, ozone depletion, and acidification may have impacts that will confront local, regional, and global communities with situations they are unprepared for. Previously unknown risks to human health are becoming evident from the cumulative and persistent effects of a whole range of chemicals, particularly the persistent organic pollutants. The effects of climate variability and change are already increasing the incidence of familiar public health problems and leading to new ones, including a more extensive reach of vectorborne diseases and a higher incidence of heat-related illness and mortality. If significant major policy reforms are not implemented quickly, the future might hold more such surprises.

We are not making rapid policy reforms, nor are we making rapid reforms of our way of life. And this is the central problem that we face - at the same time we affirmed once annually our commitment to the environment, we also affirmed our basic commitment to an affluent, high consumption way of life - and began to export that way of life through a combination of media and neo-liberal economic policies. Ultimately, it isn't just the greenwashers who said that no fundamental changes are necessary, that we should just buy new, green stuff.

Science is no respecter of persons

Meanwhile, for the most part mainstream environmentalism has supported this idea - the fundamental assumption is that people will not change their lives, so we must tell them that all that is being asked of them is a little bit. The problem with this statement is that the laws of biology, physics and chemistry are no respecters of persons, or intent, or what we are comfortable with or politically willing to do.

We know for a fact that at this point only extremely strong and rapid action could avert crossing critical tipping points. In fact, there's a good chance that even those strategies won't work. Consider the climate modelling performed by Andrew Weaver and other scientists at the University of Victoria, which showed that only a rapid 100% reduction in industrial emissions actually prevented us from crossing the 2 degree tipping point.

But that's just one study, isn't it? Well, consider the aggregate analysis of the IPCC, released to almost no press attention this fall as "The Copenhagen Diagnosis" - it was almost immediately ignored, because it is so much more fun to read hacked emails. The depressing conclusions were that everything is happening much faster than projected even in 2006, that emission rates are rising faster, and that unless we act radically very quickly, we are facing a worldwide climate disaster - from The Guardian's report:

The essence of the new report is that things are grimmer than the IPCC has reported. And it's not like the panel has been painting a rosy picture--its 2007 report concluded that the warming-induced melting of the Greenland ice sheet could create significant sea-level rise in this century. IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri said at the time, "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

The new diagnosis finds that arctic sea ice is melting 40 percent faster than the panel estimated just a few years ago. Another startling finding: Satellites have found that the global average for rising sea levels was 3.4 millimeters per year from 1993-2008. The IPCC estimated it would be 1.9 mm for that period--short by 80 percent.

The report's authors (who include the preeminent Stephen Schneider) write that "if global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly." If you're keeping score, 2015 is just over five years away--somewhat less comforting than the distant "2050" you used to hear so much about.

In a time when the correspondence of scientists is hacked and stolen and as a matter of political strategy, some will no doubt dismiss the group's research entirely. And even IPCC fans may question whether its decision-making process is swift enough to remain relevant. It certainly seems that events are outpacing the political system's ability to deal with them.

Or we could talk about energy supplies - we knew back at the first Earth Day in 1970 that we had to get off fossil fuels - or shortly after we did, because US oil peaked, and our political problems with OPEC forced us to recognize that fossil fuels were not infinite - but we didn't do anything much about it. After a period of active conservation, it was Morning in America again, and we needed to boom - and export our boom all over the world. And so we have done virtually nothing to shift our economy and our systems over to renewable energy sources. Because of this, we are facing a crisis - we know this.

For example, the US Department of Energy knows this - one of their main analysts recently affirmed this, although the DOE declined to answer questions (note, original article is available through the link, but is in French). The Pentagon has recently reaffirmed DOE, Army and other state agencies that observe that we are facing an imminent supply crisis. and we know from the Hirsch report (which was commissioned by the DOE) that a transition to renewable energies would take 20 years of WWII-style national investment and effort *before* the peak. Listing the international agencies that have also warned of supply crises, including the IEA, would take more time than I'm willing to devote here.

Greenwashing Isn't Just for Corporations

The central message of most Earth Day celebrations is that if we all do a little, we'll make the world a better place. But the fact is that that's not true, and as much as we like to hear such a friendly, fuzzy message, we can't make it factual just by wanting it to be true. The blunt reality is that unless we all do an awful lot, very fast, we're facing disaster. We use the word "sustainable" casually, to mean "well, we can probably do a little more of this if we cut back a little now." But we are facing a sustainability crisis in the deepest sense - if we don't make massive changes and quite rapidly, our children's future is in question - and the children of billions of people around the world.

The rhetoric of baby steps and we each have to do our tiny part masks the fact that only a massive collective effort can succeed. It is not accident that climate change and peak oil activists always invoke WWII - because we know it is possible to invest everyone in a vast international project, given sufficient motivation, but as long as even the folks on the side of the planet insist on using warm fuzzy rhetoric and not telling the hard truths, we'll find ourselves bang up against people who say "even you don't think this is a big deal, so why do it at all."

Baby steps haven't gotten us very far - our cloth bags and our CF bulbs haven't done enough. It is time to admit that we can't live the way we are for very much longer, and it is time to change the rhetoric. Now it is possible that Earth Day could, actually, result in that kind of changes - but so far, it hasn't. It has pleasantly helped propagate the idea that because we're not ready to deal with things as the laws of reality require, we don't have to, that we can do only what we are comfortable with.

We do not like to acknowledge that we may not have the time, resources or leisure to do things in comfortable, pleasant ways. We do not like to acknowledge that if everyone on the planet can't live like us, that means we have to change our lives, and soon - we like to think that the rest of the planet doesn't really mind if we take more than our share. Well, they mind. We like to think that we can have what we want and be oblivious - that we can choose not to know what the real state of our planet is. But all these things are lies, and if you believe in the truth, it is better to know the truth and begin to go forward from reality than to live in the world of polite lies. That is just another kind of greenwashing.

I know, right now, you are thinking "geez, she's depressing, she wants me to feel guilty." But no, I don't. I think guilt is an empty emotion, a weak emotion - "Oh, I shouldn't eat this cookie..oops, I'm really bad because I ate the cookie, I really shouldn't eat another one..." I have no truck with guilt, and frankly, no interest in it. I'm interested, instead, in action and what is possible, in the taking of responsibility, the acknowledgement of truth and the making of real change. So no, don't feel guilty. Do things that matter.

Last night, I was reading Wendell Berry's latest book of poems, "Leavings" and came upon this one, which I think eloquently forces us to look at our own assumptions about what is permissable, and what our choices are costing others - others who live now, others who are our children and grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, and who too have a stake in our future:


1. How much poison are willing

to eat for the success of the free

market and global trade? Please

name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much

evil are you willing to do?

Fill in the following blanks

with the names of your favorite

evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared

to make for culture and civilization?

Please list the monuments, shrines,

and works of art you would

most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and

the flag, how much of our beloved

land are you willing to desecrate?

List in the following spaces

the mountains, rivers, towns, farms

you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals or hopes,

the energy sources, the kinds of security,

for which you would kill a child.

Name, please, the children whom

you would be willing to kill.

This, of course is the operative distinction - when we speak in generalities, when we think in baby steps, of course we're for saving the planet and doing our part. And when we speak in generalities of course we believe we would not choose to do harm. It horrifies us to think that our way of life does so much damage in human lives and ecological harm - so we choose to think that because we do not mean it, because we do not intend it, we are not wholly responsible, and we need only take a few small baby steps. It is the bad corporations, the bad people who don't care, the evil cartoon anti-environmentalists.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying you are bad, or I am. But our way of life is so destructive right now that it cannot be managed in small increments. We know we can make changes in larger increments - we know this because people do it, I've done it, and so have those who participated in the Riot for Austerity or other radical change drivers. Odds are your grandparents did it during WWII - your parents or you. We know it is possible, and we have the science to prove that it is necessary, but we're still telling the wrong story.

If it were just that products were being greenwashed, Earth Day would be a grand thing. Who cares about flies in the ointment? But there's more to it than that - until we change the basic story that we are telling "we've made progress, and all we need is just a little tiny bit more help from you..." we're all greenwashing.

Original article available here

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Why I Hate Earth Day
By Sharon Astyk