Earth Day rose from a powerfully anti-corporate, grassroots movement, revved up on 1960s idealism and genuine fear inspired by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the threat of pesticides to wildlife and the food supply. The event’s founders accepted no money from corporate interests and held anti-war-style teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”
Those, as they say, were the good ol’ days. Widespread coverage of Earth Day’s 40th anniversary last Thursday generally focused on how much has changed since that first planetary celebration. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day drew an estimated 20 million participants nationwide, transforming an incipient environmental movement into a fearsome political force. Legislators heeled, eventually passing the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which compelled fundamental changes in how U.S. businesses operate.
The most immediate and obvious problems of that time, rivers that caught fire and smog-choked skylines, have abated today, but new and arguably greater challenges have risen in their place. Foremost is climate change, a less tangible threat that is global in scope and not amenable to the more local solutions that have marked the environmental movement’s major victories. “We’ve cleaned up what you can see and left everything else in limbo,” Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, told the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein.
In the past 40 years, the environmental movement has been largely absorbed into the mainstream. Borenstein’s colleague at the AP, Frederic Frommer, summed it up nicely in an article headlined, ”From rebellious roots, Earth Day now mainstream”:
The movement capitalized on the experience and passion of activists who had organized anti-war, civil rights and feminist rallies in the 1960s. Today, the environmental cause is far more sophisticated, with thousands of environmental lawyers and advocates with advanced degrees and corporations rushing to advertise “green” products.
Some would say, in short, that the movement matured and became successful. But did it lose its ability to convey the same sense of focus and urgency in the process? The general taming, institutionalization and commercialization of the cause, its transition from college campuses and street protests to PACs, boardrooms and congressional committees, is reflected as clearly as anywhere in the special sections put out on behalf of Earth Day by two of the country’s leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The special coverage allowed scarcely a passing mention of the recent failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen or the fate of pivotal energy legislation in Congress, the pressing environmental issues of the day, otherwise extensively reported by the two papers. Instead, both focused overwhelmingly on The Business of Green, which was actually the name of the Times section. That they both chose to highlight economic opportunities brought about by current environmental concerns rather than an analysis on solutions for them is telling. “Follow the money” is good advice for chasing down government corruption, but it’s not the best way to commemorate the birth of the environmental movement.
The NYT seems to get this, judging from one story printed on Earth Day in the regular business pages apart from the special section. “On 40th Anniversary, Earth Day is Big Business,” is a story that lightly mocks the sillier efforts to capitalize on Americans’ feel-good green consumerism. Leslie Kaufman reported that F.A.O. Schwarz is showcasing “Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, ‘is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.’”
“This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green,” Denis Hayes, national coordinator for the original Earth Day, told Kaufman. “It is tragic.”