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Rethinking Earth Day

Here are some thoughts from Benjamin Hale, author of The Wild and the Wicked on how we can rethink Earth Day.

It’s Earth Day! Woohoo! A day to think about, remember, and find our place on this great green globe of ours. A day of sunshine, flowers, laying about, and staring at the grass. A day falling just two days after another great new American holiday that is also about sunshine, flowers, lazing about, and staring at the grass.

I’m not at all clear how many people actually celebrate Earth Day. Presumably many. According to Earthday.org (which is a thing) at least 200 million people in 141 countries spend their Earth Day focusing on a range of important environmental issues, from having a solar cookout to building mini-gardens to picking up litter

But how, exactly, does one celebrate Earth Day? There are no jolly philanthropists in red suits, no pilgrims, no fireworks, no cherubic archers, no dreidels or clackers or Mensches on benches—nothing really. Not even cute little bunnies that lay eggs for no clear biological reason, which seems like exactly the kind of mascot that an Earth Day holiday ought to have. What could be more earth-friendly than some twisted hybrid chickenbunny that hides colorful eggs in synthetic grass, terrifying children everywhere and then placating them with chocolate? I want goddesses in Gaia costumes distributing gummy worms in terracotta pots!

Allegedly on Earth Day we’re supposed to conduct teach-ins, plant trees, clean up our campuses, rouse our congregations, stop the extinction of rhinos, save the whales, protect the elephants, and green our cities, among other things. All in one day! Then, once we’re done, on April 23rd, we can go right on back to being environmental criminals.

No, I’m kidding. Nobody thinks they can save the planet overnight. What’s unique about Earth Day is that it’s not really a holiday that one celebrates at all. It’s the one day a year that we’re supposed to spend just a wee bit of extra time thinking about what we do. That’s important, and maybe a critical imperative of environmentalism. The hope, of course, is that this one day will encourage a string of follow-on days on which we continue reflecting on what we do.

On this Earth Day, consider the following: our planet is a giant hurtling ball that spins round and round in one direction, warming and cooling, supporting life, denying life, crashing, booming, thundering, and wobbling toward eternity until at last it flames out, killing everything. During this long cold trip through the universe, there’s a momentary blip during which a bunch of fleshy brainy types—us, basically—live industriously and communally, laughing and giggling and gorging our way through the cosmos. Many of these fleshy brainy types also fight wars and build weapons and suffer tremendously, but for today, let’s focus on those of us lucky enough to laugh and giggle and gorge.

Those of us lucky enough to be in this position know that so much of our laughing and giggling and gorging is a fairly insular activity. We can drive to the store and buy what we want and party as we see fit, provided that we have the resources to do so. There are very few social or interpersonal constraints on our actions. If we’ve got the cash, we can build as big, consume as much, and party as hard as we’d like. Earth Day asks us to pause and think about our actions, for a brief, fractional moment, to make sure that our actions are justified.

What I’d like to see on this Earth Day is a serious commitment to reflection, and specifically to reflective engagement with others. Take a moment or two to read up on whatever environmental issue you care to understand. Need to know something about climate change? Try the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) newsroom. Need to know something about extinction? Check out the IUCN. Wanna learn about environmental justice and public health? See what UNEP is up to.

When you do this, think not so much about actions that you can take to solve these problems—these problems are enormous and wicked…way too complicated for you to address alone—but rather think about how your day-to-day consumptive patterns, specifically with regard to the issues that interest you, otherwise escape the scrutiny of everyone else in the world. Think about what you do—today, tomorrow, the next day—and about how little you have to do to justify, how infrequently you’re called upon to explain yourself, how if your actions were called into question by outside parties, you might have to rethink what you’re doing. And then ask yourself: if someone else asked you to justify what you’re doing, if someone with lots of information about the impacts of your actions asked you to explain reasons for taking the actions that you take, would you be able to do so? If your answer is yes, then what you’re doing is probably okay. But if your answer is no, ask yourself if there’s not some other way, perhaps a more reflective and considerate way, to accomplish your goals. Do that all day long. Do it again and again and again. In other words, do it. Subject your lifestyle to the scrutiny of others.

This, it seems to me, is exactly what we’re supposed to do when we celebrate Earth Day. We’re not supposed to cheer the planet or marvel at its abundance or partake of its riches, though we may want to do this as well. We’re supposed to think about what we do, and more specifically, we’re supposed to find it in ourselves to evaluate our lifestyles and ask ourselves, just for a little while, whether we’re living reasonably and permissibly.

When you’re done with that, go to the store, buy some gummy worms, and dress up like Gaia. The neighborhood kids will love you….and if you’re in Colorado, they may just think you’ve mixed up your holidays.

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