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Talkin’ trash on Earth Day: Festivities focus too much on cosmetic issues

The inaugural “Crying Indian” ad ran in 1971 on the second celebration of Earth Day.

If you’re of my vintage — an early Gen X’er — the mention of Earth Day may bring to mind the old TV ad that featured a Native American man paddling down a polluted river, past belching smokestacks and littered shorelines. The ad ends with him standing at the edge of a busy highway, a single tear rolling down his right cheek after a passing motorist throws a bag of trash at his feet (mind you, road rage was just in its infancy). A voice-over announces, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

That inaugural “Crying Indian” ad ran in 1971 on the second celebration of Earth Day. As flag-wavingly patriotic and “green” as the ad appeared, all was not as it seemed. The commercial’s star carried the stage name “Iron Eyes Cody,” but his given name was Espera Oscar de Corti and he was the son of Sicilian immigrants in Louisiana. And “Keep America Beautiful,” the nonprofit sponsoring the ad, was bankrolled by the biggest names in the can and beverage industry, who did indeed want to keep people from littering, in part because it would stifle their plans to move the country away from reusable bottles toward more consumer-friendly and portable disposable cans.

De Corti died in 1999 (taking with him the explanation for why he only cried out of one eye) but Earth Day celebrations continue. If you’re too young to have been chastised by de Corti’s tear, the thought of Earth Day likely brings images of children planting flowers, and people cleaning up parks. Or something like this year’s Earth Day Santa Cruz celebration — “an exciting community event offering education information, activities for kids including an arts and crafts tent, live music and a focus on green businesses.” Earth Day Miami plans an evening of “music, networking, and Eco-fashion,” and EarthFest Ohio is offering “biodiesel-powered amusement park rides and healthy food from food trucks.”

Music and artisanal food won’t cut it

Now, I like biodiesel amusement park rides as much as the next guy (the “Canola Coaster” and the “OPEC Octo-Scrambler” are my favorites) but here’s where I rain a little on the Earth Day parade. Here’s where I want to throw trash on the moccasins of anyone who suggests that an afternoon of wood flute music, artisanal foods, and Eco-fashion is a serious response to the serious challenge of climate change.

These Earth Day festivities are no doubt sponsored by good people doing what they can, but from a public-relations standpoint, they’re counterproductive if they send the message that our so-called “environmental issues” are cosmetic in nature — too many cans and food wrappers in the ditch, and not enough flowers.

When in fact, as human beings, our primary “environmental issue” is hardly cosmetic, and comes up about every five seconds: breathing.

Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, couch potato, “nature nut,” it makes no difference; we all need oxygen to live, about 500 liters of it, every day. But we don’t make oxygen, and so we depend on those organisms that do. Joe Soucheray, the Mayor of KSTP’s “Garage Logic,” claims he’s never had a relationship with a tree, but trees and plants produce about half of all the oxygen we breathe, and the oceans’ phytoplankton kick in the other half. And so “the Mayor” does have a relationship with a tree, and it’s an intimate one — without hyperbole, it’s life and death.

The Native Americans that de Corti portrayed understood this intimate link to the natural world. Though we now have infinitely more data to prove that connection than they ever did, many current Americans seem unconvinced.

Climate change requires substantial action

The science on climate change is impressive and carries some very serious implications. We need to take serious and substantial action on it; and although constructing a kite out of 100% recycled paper, or taking a spin on the “Soy Saucers,” or attending a gardening seminar might be good for the soul or even useful, it ain’t gonna cut it.

This is so much more than a trash problem. Remember, every time you breathe in, it’s Earth Day. So let the celebration — and the real work — begin.

Craig Bowron, MD,  is a Twin Cities internist and writer. He has contributed to MinnPost, Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota Monthly, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Huffington Post, and Washington Post. 


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/22/2014 - 09:44 am.

    Earth Day should be renamed Human Day.

    The fact is that the earth will be around a lot longer than humanity, if we continue on the path we are on. The earth has been through quite a few changes, and for most of its “life” has not been hospitable to human life. The earth is being shoved to another point in its evolution where the relatively green and easy life for humanity will not be present.

    A few thousand years after the last industrial age human is gone the earth will begin a new trip to the new equilibrium, the sun will shine, the trees and plants will grow, the rain will fall and it will be peaceful.

    • Submitted by Craig Bowron on 04/22/2014 - 10:42 pm.

      You’re probably right. I always think that’s why sharks seem to have that certain grin on their face as they glide past you at the aquarium. They seem to be saying, “Hey, go ahead and stare. We can be patient. We were here before you arrived, and we’ll be here when you’re gone.”

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/22/2014 - 09:59 am.

    Yes, but . . .

    The small-scale environmentalism being pushed by local Earth Day events may, as a practical matter, be the best we can do now. It’s easy to trivialize these efforts. I’ve done my share of sniping at the idea of the Save the Earth Club at Cul-de-Sac Middle School getting into their parents’ SUVs for a field trip to pick up litter (don’t get me started on the Rain Forest Cafe), but given the current political and cultural state of the US, what else is there? The Soucheray mentality holds sway over any kind of sensible discourse.

    We should keep agitating for real action. At the same time, let’s all do what we can.

    • Submitted by Craig Bowron on 04/23/2014 - 07:10 am.

      If you’re going to tell me the Rain Forest Cafe isn’t real, then it’s over for me…
      I’ve done my share of sniping, and will likely snipe again (I like your example), but pointing out the hypocrisy of others rarely moves things forward–despite the deep, emotive pleasure it brings. It’s mesmerizing to me how knowledgeable some of my denier friends are about the intimate details of Al Gore’s carbon footprint. As if any real or perceived contradiction in Gore’s behavior erases the vast amount of science on climate change.
      If you’re looking to agitate, consider becoming involved with two local groups (there may well be others):
      Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and MN350.

  3. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/22/2014 - 02:37 pm.

    ” …let the celebration — and the real work — begin.”

    Well said. So what specifically are you suggesting?

    • Submitted by Craig Bowron on 04/23/2014 - 07:25 am.

      I would suggest that the real work involves joining the movement, wherein your personal efforts can be multiplied: democracy is not a solo sport. Two of the most active climate change groups here in Minnesota are MN350 and Citizens Climate Lobby. Look them up on line and sit in on a meeting. They are working hard at doing the real work.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/23/2014 - 03:16 am.


    There is a stiff carbon tax, but that is not very popular. Slogans and renewables are easier.
    We could also stop breathing. Each human exhales a few pounds of CO2/day, or nearly half a ton of it annually.

  5. Submitted by Richard Adair on 04/23/2014 - 09:45 am.

    Resistance to putting LRT tracks through parkland fits this paradigm reasonably well. To save recreational opportunities for local residents, Minneapolis officials seem ready to scrap a project that is conservatively estimated to eliminate over a million commutes by automobile per year, along with associated carbon emissions.

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