Earth Day: 38 years old and an identity crisis

Concertgoers are seen behind a painted globe at Sunday's concert for Earth Day in Washington.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Concertgoers gather at Sunday’s Earth Day festival in Washington.

If Earth Day, at 38, is having an identity crisis, as some suggest, perhaps the coincidence of Earth Day with the highest average price for a gallon of gasoline will concentrate American minds, help resolve the crisis and lead to a less polluted planet.

Some sort of impetus appears necessary to move the populace from awareness to concerted action. With a few exceptions — like a piece by Ronald Bailey of Reasononline, who catalogued numerous instances in which 1970s environmental doomsayers were wrong — the majority strain of 2008 Earth Day musings suggests we’ve reached a point of mass buy-in to the importance of environmental stewardship but haven’t mustered the political clout necessary to solve some of the world’s most serious and intractable challenges.

“The world has never seemed more focused on the environment than it is this Earth Day — and that worries many environmentalists,” writes Jeffrey Ball in The Wall Street Journal. “Launched in 1970 as a protest against corporate environmental misconduct, Earth Day has become a planet-hugging marketing frenzy for companies themselves.”

“Makers of everything from snack chips to sport-utility vehicles now use April 22 to boast about their efforts to help save the planet. … But activists fear that something gets lost in the pop-environmentalism this once-a-year celebration has come to epitomize: bold action. They fret that a flood of well-meaning but inadequate gestures gives people a false sense of progress, lulling them into complacency just when the world needs more environmental action and less talk — not the other way around.”

‘Therapeutic and consumer movement’

Similarly, in a piece titled “How Earth Day Became … So Every Day,” Gregory M. Lamb of ABC News writes, “Earth Day seems to be entering a midlife identity crisis.”

Lamb quotes Paul Sutter, an associate professor at the University of Georgia: “It’s relaxed into a kind of therapeutic and consumer movement. We buy things to protect the environment. We recycle, but I don’t think there’s nearly as much of an activist strain as there used to be.”

It’s a sense that while Americans are ever more in tune with Al Gore — maybe even buying newfangled light bulbs and taking shorter showers a la Cameron Diaz — we’re passively watching the Environmental Protection Agency thwart California’s aggressive steps to curb carbon emissions. While we’re picking up trash on Earth Day, we’re not pressuring Congress to match California’s law and up it.

As David A. Fahrenthold observed in the Washington Post, “Almost everybody seems to be doing — or buying — something to lighten their burden on the environment. … But it can still seem as though nobody is doing enough.

“Nationally, climate change has become a galvanizing political issue. But real-world changes still lag: U.S. emissions are projected to rise, not fall, over the next two decades.”

A murkier reality under the surface
“On the surface, there’s this glowing green thing going on,” Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, told the Post. “But beneath it, there’s something a lot murkier and darker.”

The New York Times saw such a dynamic in President Bush’s Rose Garden speech on global warming last week. In an editorial today, it noted that White House aides had billed the event as a major turning point on this administration’s approach to global warming. But, it said, “Sadly, Mr. Bush’s ideas amounted to the same old stuff, gussied up to look new. Instead of trying to make up for years of denial and neglect, his speech seemed cynically designed to prevent others from showing the leadership he refuses to provide — to derail Congress from imposing a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and the states from regulating emissions on their own.”

The president’s main proposal “was to halt the growth of emissions in the United States, chiefly from power plants, by 2025,” the editorial said. “This means, of course, that after seven years of letting emissions grow, he would allow them to continue to grow for another 17 years — and would come nowhere near the swift reductions in emissions that scientists believe are necessary to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.”

All this is not to say that ordinary people’s individual steps — whether walking to work or driving a Prius — don’t help. It’s that they can give the illusion of a public accomplishing more than it is.

The difference in gallons and dollars
A mass movement to save gas money could actually accomplish a lot. According to, “The California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates that fuel costs for a gasoline vehicle can be over five times greater than an electric vehicle. By driving an electric vehicle with a 30-mile commute, a person can reduce gasoline consumption by an estimated 750 gallons annually. At today’s fuel prices, this can result in a savings of approximately $2,500 a year.” Multiply that a few million times and you have real savings — of both gasoline burned and money unspent.

The movement isn’t mass, not yet, but James R. Healey of USA Today reports on two new price reports and notes shifts in vehicle buying patterns:

“The average price for regular gasoline across the USA was a record $3.508 a gallon Monday, eclipsing the inflation-adjusted peak of $3.413 set in March 1981 — $1.417 back then — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. … Separately, the AAA and the Oil Price Information Service, which use a different method, reported a U.S. gasoline average of $3.503 Monday.” (The latter figure moved up to $3.511 today.)

Such prices, he writes, “have made big SUVs hard to sell — both for automakers and for owners who want to trade down. Average prices for full-size SUVs in March tumbled 15.4% from a year earlier at wholesale auctions where dealers buy and sell vehicles, and large pickups were down 12.6%, after adjustments for miles and other factors, according to Thomas Webb, chief economist for Manheim Consulting.”

In the big scheme of matters environmental, that’s a small shift — certainly no ’70s-style demand for political action. But serious changes in buying patterns amount to much more than feel-good platitudes. They could take us well beyond the status quo, which an environmental chronicler bleakly describes this way:

“Earth Day today is really much more like Mother’s Day, or maybe Martin Luther King Day,”  Adam Rome, a professor of history at Penn State University, told the Post. “It’s a once-a-year day to think about some things or maybe do a little something.” 

A midlife identity crisis indeed.

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 04/22/2008 - 01:29 pm.

    The false religion of global warming
    Posted: April 22, 2008
    Why I Left Greenpeace
    April 22, 2008; Page A23

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 04/22/2008 - 12:18 pm.

    “The California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates that fuel costs for a gasoline vehicle can be over five times greater than an electric vehicle. By driving an electric vehicle with a 30-mile commute, a person can reduce gasoline consumption by an estimated 750 gallons annually. At today’s fuel prices, this can result in a savings of approximately $2,500 a year.”

    Great! Where can I buy one of these cool electric vehicles?

    Oh….I see.

    How about a vehicle that runs on fairy dust and moonbeams instead?

    Kidding aside, being a clean air guy for the Lung Association, I would be the first to buy a zero-emissions electric car, if they were offered. Studies like that are of little value to those of us trying to find solutions and alternatives today, in the real world. Thanks, CARB, but perhaps you should focus on vehicle options that acually exist — that way you won’t have to backtrack on your recomendations, as you did about a month ago.

  3. Submitted by David Dempsey on 04/22/2008 - 12:54 pm.

    Thank you writing about one of the most important issues of our time — how we treat the earth and assure human survival. You’ve correctly discerned that changes in buying habits based on good analysis, not commercial Earth Day spin, are a primary route toward a sustainable society. If there’s a primary source of hope this Earth Day, it’s in the possibility of a new definition of a wealthy society and new jobs emerging from scarcity of petroleum and other natural resources.

  4. Submitted by Paul Lang on 04/22/2008 - 09:36 pm.

    It takes time to move big business and impact old ways of doing business. Let’s look at the Yellow and White Page Telephone industry. They print and deliver over 500 Million books every year! How much energy is being used and waste produced? If you ask them to allow you to opt out from receiving a book the publishers tell you maybe by 2010 they will have a system. Why? Because it is a $14B dollar per year industry. But if you search the web you come across a site which allows you to “opt out” from getting these books. So you have a moment that is impacting big business and it takes a while for the people to move the rules to fit the needs of society and not big business. Oil is going to take even longer. How come no presidential wannabe has stood up like Kennedy when he said we will be on the moon on ten years and told us we will be off oil in ten years? Because it is big business and we the people have to move the rules.

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