Earth Day ennui

Google doodle dominates coverage of the environmental holiday

It’s a bad sign when the biggest news on Earth Day is an animated Google doodle of nature, wherein a blue stream flows from a snow-covered mountain pass into a fish-filled lake surrounded by trees and fields—yet that was the best that most outlets could muster on Monday, the 43rd anniversary of the environmental holiday.

It’s sad. As climate change became a major media story in the mid-2000s, it seemed to galvanize renewed concern about environmental issues in general. Magazines, in particular, adopted the habit of publishing Green issues in March and April, to mark the occasion of Earth Day. There were half a dozen in 2007 and twice as many in 2008. Time even changed its iconic red border to green for a cover that used the famous World War II photograph of soldiers raising a flagpole at Iwo Jima:

The Green issues contained some fluff, to be sure, about biking to work and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, but most content was substantive reporting on everything from agriculture to energy to zoology. Unfortunately, the fad was short-lived, and by 2010, they were no more.

Instead of powerful cover images, readers now get the Google doodle, which wasn’t even scientifically accurate in a number of respects, as Bad Astronomer Phil Plaitt explained at Slate. It’s not Google that deserves criticism, however, but rather all the news outlets that produced utterly innocuous Earth Day coverage.

There were a few exceptions, of course. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia Journalism School, which publishes CJR, reviewed the history of the environmental movement for The New Yorker in order to glean “political lessons” about the failure of climate-change legislation in Congress in 2009, which he called, “a humiliating defeat as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been.”

Echoing the conclusions of two scholarly reports that came out earlier this year, Lemann suggested that while “today’s environment movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970,” it’s also “vastly less successful” due to a focus on Beltway politics rather than broad-based, grassroots organizing.

As if to carry the torch of that argument, journalist-turned-climate activist Bill McKibben wrote an essay for Rolling Stone about “The Fossil Fuel Resistance” that’s returned to the strategy that prevailed around the first Earth Day to try to block the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. According to McKibben:

After decades of scant organized response to climate change, a powerful movement is quickly emerging around the country and around the world, building on the work of scattered front-line organizers who’ve been fighting the fossil-fuel industry for decades. It has no great charismatic leader and no central organization; it battles on a thousand fronts. But taken together, it’s now big enough to matter, and it’s growing fast.

Newspapers seemed altogether less concerned about the current state of the environmental movement, although a few online outlets had interesting offerings.

At The Christian Science Monitor (which used to have a print edition), science writer Pete Spotts produced a “report card” on the limited progress the world has made toward addressing global warming. Climate Central, which has journalists and scientists on staff, created an interactive graphic of the US showing the annual average temperature rise in each state since the first Earth Day. And, on a more buoyant noted, Slate put together an interesting list of “seven spectacular places saved by the environmental movement.”

That’s about it.

It’s not like Earth Day is the only occasion journalists have to write about the many ecological challenges we face, or even the best. As with any anniversary peg, the coverage can feel gimmicky if it’s not handled with care, and although it may sound cliché, every day should be Earth Day for the press.

Still, there was something about the faddish way that outlets used to treat the holiday that conveyed a collective sense of care for the planet and a commitment to protecting it. I miss the Green issues of spring.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,