Make Earth Day Great Again

Make Earth Day Great Again
Television host Padma Lakshmi takes a selfie with a fan on April 19, 2015 at an Earth Day event sponsored by MorningStar Farms, a division of the Kellogg Company. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP Images for MorningStar Farms, AP)

I know that Earth Day is April 22nd because companies won’t stop emailing me about it. What began as a call to action for environmental protections is now just a marketing opportunity.

My inbox has been slammed with brands and PR agencies messaging things like “COMPANY X THAT POLLUTES EVERY OTHER DAY OF THE YEAR IS DOING A TRASH CLEAN UP ON EARTH DAY.” Corporations that have contributed to the climate crisis upload corny social media posts about loving nature. Consumers get greenwashed messages about what products they can buy in order to be “waste free.”

Maybe, at some level, it’s driven by good intentions. But this marketing does little of value, and may even make things worse. Framing the climate crisis around big companies and products for people with lots of disposable income leaves little room to talk about communities that have contributed the least to the problem, but suffer the most because of it.

It wasn’t always this way. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson coordinated a national day to educate the public on pressing environmental issues. That April, more than 20 million people participated in demonstrations, rallies, and teach-ins throughout the U.S. Americans were horrified by a huge California oil spill the year before, and people had begun to question how human activity was affecting the planet. That era gave us the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and important legislation like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

But over time, the holiday shifted away from protests and regulatory action, and began to cater to white, middle-class sensibilities. Now most major environmental justice organisations are by well-fed bureaucrats, not community organisers. It’s become acceptable for large companies to “join the conversation,” despite the fact that they continue to pump out astronomical levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile communities of colour, like the Parishes in “Cancer Alley” Louisiana, have to face cancer rates 50 times higher than the national average, thanks to fossil fuel companies and chemical plants near their homes. Nature loving tweets and ads reminding viewers to go biking instead of driving their cars isn’t going to fix that.

Isaias Hernandez is an environmental justice content creator who grew up in Los Angeles. His Earth Day education often came from school presentations. But one year, an environmental organisation went to his school and had students put their zip codes into an online calculator that outlined environmental justice issues in their communities. It began to click for Hernandez that climate and environmentalism was playing a larger role in his life and well being than he had thought.

“[My neighbourhood] got bad water and bad air… [and there were] toxic industries near my house,” he told Earther. “I started to make those interconnections. It’s not that my parents didn’t work hard to live, it’s the fact that these systems were designed to historically disinvest in people of colour.”

Hernandez grew up in one of the many communities around the U.S. that are often left behind in Earth Day messaging. They understand how years of greenwashed messaging leaves areas like the one he grew up in overburdened with the task of advocating for themselves, without the support that goes into whitewashed environmental movements and corporate marketing. So Hernandez wants the future of Earth Day to shun large companies and focus on centering grassroots efforts and policies that address intersectional issues like poverty and pollution.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental justice activist whose work focuses on the lack of adequate waste removal systems in rural areas, wants people who are struggling the most to be at the forefront of the holiday’s message. “We need to lift up the stories of people living with mountaintop removal and its residuals; Cancer Alley and the polluting plants; water scarcity in western communities; wildfires in Texas, Arizona and California; sea level rise in Florida; the melting permafrost in Alaska,” she said in an email to Earther. “Earth Day should be a religious holiday exemplified by conscious efforts to decarbonize. That should be at the forefront of any celebration.”

Here at Gizmodo, we’ve advocated that “It’s Time to Kill Earth Day.” The holiday can and should be more than just quick social media nods to caring about nature, offered just because it’s trendy to care about the environment. If future celebrations can’t put those those who struggle the most at the centre of action, we don’t want them.