42 Years Later, Do We Suffer Green Fatigue on Earth Day?

By Michael D. Lemonick

I don’t remember all that much about the very first Earth Day, which happened 42 years ago, on April 22, 1970. I was a junior in high school at the time, and my youthful outrage, such as it was, was focused more on ending the Vietnam War than on saving the environment. Just 10 days later, Richard Nixon would push the Vietnam protests over the top with his announcement that the U.S. had expanded the war into Cambodia; a few days after that, four students would be shot to death by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, in Ohio.

The day didn’t go unnoticed, though. School officials had decided to tear up a patch of lawn to build a new parking lot; the bulldozers had begun their work, and a pile of dirt was sitting at the edge of the work site. So the students, galvanized into action by this new day of national protest, grabbed trays from the cafeteria, ran outside and shoveled all the dirt back where it had come from. The pile was leveled in just a few minutes. (I also remember that someone dug a hole and planted himself, like a tree, and stood with his arms out, drizzle lightly falling, for much of the afternoon. Yes, he had been smoking something.)

On the following day, the bulldozers returned. The parking lot was finished a week later.

But the effect of Earth Day itself has proven a lot more durable. The nationwide demonstrations that happened on that day brought some 20 million Americans out (most without cafeteria trays) to rally for a cleaner environment. Before the year was out, those protests help lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon — although there were plenty of other reasons, including the fact that the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, had literally caught fire the year before.

The Clean Air act was also signed that year, and the Clean Water Act would follow in 1972, but crucial as these laws were, they were only part of Earth Day’s legacy. Equally important was the overall raising of Americans’ environmental consciousness. Recycling, for example, was a completely fringe activity in 1970. If you didn’t wear Birkenstocks, it wasn’t happening, and if you insisted on doing it, you had to drive to the recycling center in your Volkswagen microbus. Nowadays, if you throw your drink bottle in the ordinary trash, people glare at you, and small children might cry.

In short, the nation’s environmental consciousness really began to coalesce in 1970 out of Americans’ unfocused dismay over belching smokestacks, fetid water, garbage strewn everywhere (we used to scold people for being “litterbugs,” which made trashing the outdoors sound almost cute), and poisons of various kinds being discharged in all directions.

Today, environmental consciousness is utterly mainstream. Companies and organizations fall all over themselves to talk about how green they are (Google the phrase “going green” and see if you get more than the 24,800,000 hits I just got), or what level of LEED certification their headquarters have achieved. It’s partly because sustainable business practices save money in the long run, and it may be that some of them truly care about the environment, but it’s also a powerful marketing tool. If customers didn’t care, companies might be doing these things anyway, but they wouldn’t bother advertising it.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the problem licked by a long shot. Forests are being cut down and species are going extinct at a faster rate than ever and toxic pollutants are still being spewed from smokestacks, to name just a few of the dangers facing the environment.

And looming above them all is the problem of climate change. Back on that first Earth Day, most people had never heard of it, and wouldn’t for nearly two decades. By now, that’s no longer true, of course. With films like An Inconvenient Truth and worldwide coverage of the U.N.’s COP-15 climate conference in 2009 and denunciations by U.S. Senators and talk radio hosts and a list that could go on for pages, there’s pretty much nobody on the planet who hasn’t heard about greenhouse gases and rising temperatures and rising seas. Back in 2000, climate change and clean energy were the declared themes of Earth Day, and in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the holiday, a quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall in Washington for a climate rally.

There’s been no legislation to roll back greenhouse gas emissions, however, nothing remotely like the Clean Air Act, or the EPA’s successful campaign to limit acid rain in the 1980’s. And despite a recent Senate hearing on the issue, none is likely any time soon. This, despite the fact that Americans seem to get that there really is a problem.

They’re not out rallying for a solution, however, or at least, not in great enough numbers to force politicians’ hands. Maybe that’s because, in a way, the mainstreaming of environmental awareness is a mixed blessing. We accomplished so much that for some people it’s brought on a sort of green fatigue. OK, we’ve hugged enough trees, can we relax and have a beer?

As yet another Earth day comes and goes, I’m less convinced than I once was that these annual consciousness-raising events can accomplish the sorts of change we need.

I fear we’ll have to suffer a massive natural disaster, definitively linked to climate change, to do that. And unfortunately, that’ll be an Earth Day no one will forget.