Earth Day 2013: How Celebrating Earth Day is Hurting the Planet


Happy Earth Day! Today you may be planting trees, flash mobbing, or spelling 'CO 2' with GPS devices. Maybe you'll attend an Earth Day festival where you'll make a pledge to put to solar panels on your home. Traveling to your abode, calculating the monthly payments on the solar panels, children bickering in the back seat over whose green balloon is bigger and whether they'll play with the plastic kaleidoscope or squishy frog grabbed from the bowels of a goody bag, you may wonder, "How is all of this protecting Mother Earth?"

It's not. Missing from today's festivals, parades and school presentations is advocacy for simply consuming less. Earth Day may make us feel good about our recycling efforts but we can't dance or plant evergreens to balance out the over consumption driving the industrialization needed to meet our daily wants and needs.

Consumerism has long had critics. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were conscious of its ties to the environment, in part because of best-selling social critics like Vance Packard. Packard questioned 1950s consumerism in The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, but it was his 1960 best-seller The Waste Makers that sharpened the critique.

He writes, "A person can't go down to the store and order a new park. A park requires unified effort, and that gets you into voting and public spending and maybe soak-the-rich taxes." But the effort was essential. The consumption of ever greater quantities of "deodorants, hula hoops, juke boxes, padded bras, dual mufflers, horror comics, or electric rotisseries" could not ensure national greatness. Instead Americans needed to improve the quality of the environment, to stop the spread of pollution and "the growing sleaziness, dirtiness, and chaos of the nation's great exploding metropolitan areas."

The modern environmental movement is largely silent about the ties between consumerism and the environment, although that may be changing. The release of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by Ozzie Zehner last year ruffled establishment feathers and helped bring the question of what and how much is consumed, as a driver of energy consumption, into the spotlight. Zehner, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkely's Science, Technology &Society Center, is neither for nor against any particular energy source, instead striving to dispel the hype surrounding alternative energy sources and the false choice between fossil fuels and clean energy, as alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels and the same financing that drives fossil fuel growth.

It's important to investigate how our consumption impacts fossil fuel growth because it's exploitation is one factor to increased atmospheric CO2 levels, which impacts global warming, which increases climate change. With climate change expected to devastate America with drought, hot temperatures and disaster prone areas there is no time like the present to reevaluate our priorities and consumer behavior should be at the top of the list.

Celebrating the historical milestones of Earth Day is certainly appropriate, as is gathering as a country and global community poised for positive change. It can provide hope to citizens knowing that on Earth Day in 1970, 22 million people from across the political spectrum, rich and poor, took to the streets and fomented the catalyst leading to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency as well passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Act.

Americans can come together again, just as they did in three decades ago, to celebrate Earth Day, this time realizing one unified group has the power to systematically decrease fossil fuel production by consuming less. Celebrate Earth Day 2013 by starting today.