Does Earth Day Still Matter?

Photo: iStockphoto.com/skodonnell

We went to the source and asked 6 environmentalists, including an activist, documentary filmmaker and youth leader. Here’s how they answered.

Every April 22, on Earth Day, local news shows feature inspiring stories about community clean- ups and kids planting trees. (And, as critics rightly point out, it’s also the day that greenwashing reaches its peak, as many corporations and individuals make only token gestures.) For one day, a whole lot of people are paying attention to environmental issues, which is fantastic—but it’s also just one day out of 365. So as Earth Day heads into its fortieth year, Green Living asked a few leaders in the environmental movement to weigh in: Is there still value in Earth Day?

The activist

The year 2009 may be a turning point for humanity. Either we take ecology seriously and begin to change our habits of material and energy consumption, or we risk making the planet uninhabitable for our progeny. This year, we need an epiphany, a paradigm shift on an unprecedented scale. The time for quibbling and hand-wringing is long over. So the importance of Earth Day this year exceeds anything we’ve experienced in the past.

Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International

The documentarian

One of the best things about Earth Day is that it’s very broad in scope, focusing people’s minds on a lot of the bigger-picture issues surrounding the environment. Climate change, in many ways, is a symptom of these larger problems, and it can’t be looked upon in isolation. Earth Day is an opportunity for people to reflect on species extinction, overpopulation, depletion of the fisheries and global warming; all these things taken together.

—Robert Stone, director and producer of Earth Days, an upcoming documentary on the origins of the modern environmental movement

The new generation

Organized days of action provide ordinary people with the tools and support to take bold steps toward a more sustainable future. In 2009, we need to reclaim the original vision of Earth Day—a grassroots movement of people demanding that the government take notice of environmental issues—and learn from our predecessors’ successes. We need to take to the streets and demand a clean and sustainable future for all. We need to go to our Parliament or to our Congress and hold the politicians accountable for the rising green house gas emissions and melting icecaps. Now, more than ever, we need to band together, not just as Canadians or Americans or Australians, but as citizens of the world. The actions of Earth Day on April 22 are examples of what we could and should be doing everyday: mobilizing to ensure that the future we inherit is a clean and just one.  

—Jessica Dawe, Atlantic Regional Coordinator, and Tria Donaldson, British Columbia Coordinator, Sierra Youth Coalition

The next generation

Earth Day makes people take notice. It re-energizes them to take issues to the forefront and try to come up with solutions. The problems are there year-round, but with this one day, people get concerned about it. So of course it’s a good idea. I like that little kids and secondary schools and community organizations get involved because if you learn about the stuff when you’re young, your values tend to stay with you for your whole life. It’s easier for you to understand why it’s important; it’s easier for you to understand why to make a change.

—Payal Patel, Youth Advisory Committee member for Green Street, an environmental and sustainability education program for students and teachers

The advocate

Earth Day is absolutely valuable. People are probably more concerned about the environment today than they have been for many, many years, and they still very much appreciate that there’s a day a year that they can focus their efforts. That being said, I think Earth Day probably needs a bit of a revamp. We’ve been having it since 1970 and probably need some fresh perspectives. It went from being a very big international thing to now being a very local one, so Earth Day activities across the globe are a bit disconnected. Earth Hour, I think, is a very interesting, innovative approach to that, where everybody knows that they’re doing the same thing at a given time of day across the planet. I’d like to see that sense of connection on Earth Day.

—Dr Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance

The educator

I think Earth Day is useful as a day that focuses on awareness of environment and sustainability issues—it gets media attention, showcases interesting initiatives and engages schools, businesses and the community. It does have drawbacks though. For example, it’s often just a one-off activity like a lunchtime display, it’s difficult to quantify results, such as greenhouse gas emissions and waste reduction, and it’s now competing with Earth Hour. In the future, I’d love to see activities that start with Earth Hour and culminate in Earth Day—a whole month to do something constructive and meaningful!

 —Pam Schwartzberg, executive director of Learning for a Sustainable Future