April 22 – Earth Day – Time for a New Approach?

As Earth Day 2021 approaches, a key argument in Naomi Klein’s seminal book of eco-political thinking This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate feels relevant. Klein argued that mass public solidarity was the only deterrent against climate breakdown. In a poetic metaphor, she stated that “we look [at the climate crisis] but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving… many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut” (Klein 3). According to Klein, opening both eyes means merging one’s personal consumption choices with radical system-change politics. Any climate actions that end with individual behaviors neglect the grand scale and existential nature of the ecological crisis. As banks and oil companies find solidarity in lobbying, so must workers and citizens find avenues for public expression and coordinated political action. 

April 22nd marks the annual return of the world’s largest citizen-led environmental movement. Earth Day has undergone many evolutions since its birth in 1970, and now contains appearances from celebrity activists such as Greta Thunberg, performances from famous musicians like Talib Kweli, and climate literacy programs. If Klein’s “both eyes open” premise has merit, the peaceful citizen gatherings that occur during Earth Day are fundamental to nations’ decarbonization strategies. Without constituents organizing around climate justice and renewable energy, politicians will not feel compelled to draft clean energy legislation. As our stalled politics illustrates, scientific warnings, socioeconomic injustices, and ecological breakdown do not affect institutional change in themselves. Change, in an era defined by mass inequality and moneyed interests, only happens when citizens apply acute political pressure. 

Earth Day began in 1970 when a group of activists and bipartisan politicians, galvanized by an oil spill in Santa Barbara, adopted a broad-tent approach to environmentalism. Inspired by the student-led anti-Vietnam protests, Earth Day was the first attempt to organize all United States citizens around the issues of water pollution, deforestation, and the environmentally destructive hegemony of big industry. The first movement garnered twenty million marchers in the United States and reflected a nascent environmental consciousness (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an emotional indictment of pesticides, had been published only eight years earlier). In later decades, Earth Day protests shifted from vague environmentalism toward calls to mitigate global carbon emissions and advance climate justice. Over its fifty year history, Earth Day has filled an important social vacuum in the United States and other global communities. For a country in which citizen solidarity is low, communities suffer from geographic and cultural atomization, and loneliness abounds, mass activities like Earth Day attempt to harness dormant communal energy for political and social renewal. 

And yet, it is difficult to ignore a paradox. As the Earth Day movement grows (in 2020, digital events garnered over 100 million participants across 192 countries), so do carbon emissions. Despite the movement’s impassioned history and overt political demands, environmental degradation has accelerated since its inception. Perhaps momentary displays of solidarity, even when they spread climate education and awareness, are easily ignored by an entrenched fossil fuel industry. As the climate crisis accelerates, Earth Day may have to adapt its practices and social alignments. In the United States, workplace striking has reached historic lows. This is unfortunate since it is these exact practices that disrupt the material flows powering modern economies, and legitimately threaten the infrastructure upon which fossil capital relies.

Environmental movements, in the public conscious, are usually perceived as aspirational and benign. While this perception ensures broad public support for events like Earth Day, it handicaps their political efficacy. Maybe having “both eyes open,” to borrow Klein’s phrase, means more than bridging the personal and the social. It means greeting an existential crisis with existential tactics. As Klein writes, “there are ways of preventing this grim future, or at least making it a lot less dire. But the catch is that these also involve changing everything” (4). Everything must change. This includes our high-consumer lifestyles, our minority-rule politics, and even how we conceive of our relationship with the natural environment. These changes require more than annual education classes, inspiring music, or even partnerships with tree-planting initiatives like The Canopy Project. Our society needs a radical reinvention, and that reinvention includes the ways we fight, organize, and show solidarity. Fossil hegemony will not topple from the occasional rally in the streets. We must find new ways to create material change. 

To learn more about this year’s virtual Earth Day events, visit their website by following this link: https://www.earthday.org.

Written By: Maxwell Rowe-Sutton