Is It Time to Retire Earth Day?

It's widely debated how exactly it started, but the roots of the modern environmental movement trace back to the 1960s. Early in the decade, Rachel Carson published her nonfiction work "Silent Spring" as a wake-up call to current and impending environmental concerns. Several years later, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (of Wisconsin), one of the government's first eco warriors, sought to harvest general awareness and turn it into a movement. He hit on the idea of an event, modeled after the anti-Vietnam war teach-ins of the day, to raise eco consciousness nationwide. The event that turned into the first "Earth Day" took place on April 22, 1970, and became the catalyst for a series of nature-based legislation and eventually the emergence of a mainstream environmental movement. (Story continued below...)

Back then, the issues were only broadly understood. There was some talk about extinctions of wildlife, scarce groundwater supplies and a niche-but-growing theory about something called climate change (Was the Earth, NEWSWEEK wondered in the 1970s, getting colder—or was it getting warmer?). Still, there was an emerging consensus that our planet's resources are not infinite, and if the exploitation of them remained unaddressed, bigger problems awaited. The takeaway for the 20 million people who participated that first Earth Day in 1970 was simple: we all live on the same rock; let's not foul our nest.

The first Earth Day was like the sounding of a bullhorn for the people to unite and get moving, which worked. But this year, 39 years later, the original intent has long eroded. The one-day demonstration that started a movement lost most of its luster decades ago. Yet we still have it—and that has alarming implications for our environmental progress. What was originally intended as the sounding of an alarm has been reproduced each year in the exact same way. The problem is, it's hard to be motivated by a screeching alarm when you've been hitting the snooze button for the last four decades. Even worse, maintaining an old solution to a problem that changes by the minute seems to compartmentalize a movement that, by now, should be much broader, more frequent and much more inclusive.

Ardent environmentalists hold some contempt at the idea of still having an annual, one-day celebration. As a friend who's an environmental researcher told me last week, Earth Day for environmental professionals is like Easter for Christians: it's a good excuse to have a party, but the real discipleship is supposed to happen all year. In other words, the eco roar that once captivated the world's attention somehow turned into an annual whimper of corporate sponsorships and moving yet empty speeches about the future of our children. "It's been reduced to planetary sound bites," says Chip Giller, the editor of the environmental online magazine, which this month launched a "Screw Earth Day" campaign. "It's not about a single day, dude, it's about living green every day," reasoned David Roberts, one of the site's writers, in response to criticism of the site's irreverent take on the celebration.

In that sense, it's safe to think of modern celebrations of Earth Day as an annual tradition, something akin to, say, Mothers Day, when we're supposed to celebrate on one day how much we love mothers all year. And there's great virtue in annual celebrations, even an annual ode to Mother Nature. In a larger sense, it marks a recognition of where the conservation movement has come from, and where it's going.

Loud advocacy on the National Mall and assembly fields across the country do indeed spread awareness of what people can do to help. It also opens the tent of the movement and encourages people to modestly change their lifestyle. Some thinkers, like environmental historian William Cronon, see an undeniable value in how, given the diversity of environmental issues—inner city health, global warming, renewable energy—an annual day of environmental reckoning brings everyone to the table to take stock of the broader movement.

But when it comes to environmental progress, shouldn't we be further along in 2009? And if we're not, it's certainly a signal that we've got to move faster. "We've got to accept that we're never going to solve a problem as big as global warming as individuals," says Adam Rome, a Penn State professor of human interaction with nature, who's working on a book about the first Earth Day. "Expecting present-day Earth Day to change society is ridiculous." Having an annual open house implies that there are still people on the outside who have yet to come in. And when they see environmentalists going big one day of the year, it suggests the rest of the days they go home, which doesn't quite attach urgency to the issue.

No one can belittle the accomplishments of the modern environmental movement. As the science has advanced, so too has the sheer number of groups and dollars devoted to conservation and activism. Yet a singular Earth Day—the same kind that we had in 1970 when we knew much less—suggests that we still haven't moved much, or at all. It makes it appear that environmental protection is still a franchise issue, one of many, that we don't have time to address as our busy lives race, so we make time to celebrate once each year.

The mantra that developed in the years following the original Earth Day was that "Earth Day is Every Day," or at least that it should be. That kitschy statement (who can disagree?) hung on a poster in my elementary school, two decades ago. The fact that we still, 39 years later, have one loud day devoted to environmental prudence belies that pursuit of diligent year-round conservation. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it's a contradiction worth noting.