Looking for the best way to celebrate Earth Day? You may already be doing it.
The counterculture movement that started in the 1960s has lent itself well to modernity. It’s not just the environmental advocacy Earth Day has become synonymous with. One need only to look in any direction to see the impact of our bell-bottomed parents and grandparents, be it the commercialization of spiritual practices like yoga and meditation made popular by the long-haired disciples of “gurus” like Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Bhajan, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or things we now barely bat an eye at, like unleaded gasoline, clean air regulations, and restrictions on harmful chemicals.
Peruse any supermarket aisles and you’ll see the ubiquity of whole, organic foods, and the commanding presence of sustainable plant-based alternatives. And like those Merry Pranksters of the 1960s proffered, psychedelics are now also showing promise in treating some of the biggest health crises of our time. There are ‘60s and ‘70s inspired changes to fashion, transportation, design, technology, and even finance.
The modern environmental movement took shape in 1970. But it had been brewing for years; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had spent the better part of a decade opening eyes to the reality of agrochemicals and their impact on the planet.
In Vietnam, an herbicide was one of the most lethal weapons: Agent Orange, the dioxin-producing defoliant made of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, brought decades of disease and death to Vietnamese and Americans alike, reinforcing the need for chemical regulations and corporate responsibility.
There were rivers on fire from chemical contaminants. There were “forever chemicals” being poured into cookware and takeout containers. Earth Day came to fruition as a change agent, and there’s perhaps no better window into what change “should” look like than the last two years as a pandemic thrust us into solitude and reflection.
A changing world
Those quiet early months of covid lockdown saw nature rebounding almost overnight, with animal sightings in the most unlikely of places, as if they’d just been sitting on the edges of civilization, waiting patiently for us to take our leave. Scientists are now even looking at how that “quiet period” impacted some of these animal communities to better understand how we may foster their success moving forward.
Almost overnight people were more open to trying foods better for their health and the planet during lockdown, and sales of sustainable plant-based meat and dairy products skyrocketed; 2020 saw nearly $7 billion in sales of vegan food, and sales continue to rise.
Consumers say the pandemic has imbued in them a desire to make more sustainable purchases and travel more responsibly. Electric vehicle sales have never been higher and airlines are working to improve their sustainability efforts daily.
Red carpets and catwalks have turned green, too, with luxury now defined by sustainability. Designer Stella McCartney recently summed it up: “As a designer, I think it’s the biggest compliment for your designs to have an afterlife—to me, that is luxury,” she said after partnering with the booming secondhand platform The RealReal.
Banks and VCs are seeking out opportunities to go green. Bank of America recently upped its sustainability commitments to more than $1 trillion. Celebrity investors like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Downey Jr., are helping usher in businesses that are forces for good.
For all of the good news, though, the harsh realities of ongoing devastation and destruction persist. The Amazon rainforest is seeing some of its worst razing in a decade. This is linked predominantly to the growing demand for meat; Brazil is now home to the world’s second-largest cattle herd. Ranchers continue to destroy the world’s most important rainforest for a pound of coffee and an ounce of palm oil.
The cerulean blue oceans so visible on Earth from outer space are now thick with plastic debris and human trafficking, while trillions of fish and marine life are being pulled from the oceans every year. This, while we’re simultaneously dumping unthinkable amounts of plastic and poison into the waters. By 2050, experts say plastic could outnumber fish in the oceans. This is a problem that will impact the oxygen levels on the planet, freshwater supplies, as well as the oceans’ ability to sequester carbon.
The oceans are also facing big changes from melting ice shelves; a report published last year finds significant crisis ahead as the planet warms. Another report found that 60 of the world’s largest banks have actually increased their investments into fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement. And the most recent IPCC report says we will most certainly see temperatures move beyond 1.5°C Paris Agreement targets, bringing with it devastation to billions of people around the world.
Then, there’s the matter of greenwashing—the false promises propped up by bottom-line-driven industries. It’s such a problem that the EU has now passed legislation to protect against such platitudes from the financial industry. That’s not to say capitalism can’t be an agent for good—we shop far more often than we vote, after all. But are we really convincing anyone that we can shop our way out of the climate crisis? Is that the true spirit of Earth Day?
Earth Day every day?
There’s an old Zen koan: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” The only thing that shifts there, of course, is the perception of the world, or at least, the wood and water. The acts that seemed mundane before enlightenment transform into a practice of mindfulness after.
Similarly, it is our belief that the world must change in order for us to change that got us in this mess in the first place. We’re Will Smith at the Oscars in this equation, making assumptions and following them up with bad decisions.
Earth Day is not just about shifting our habits of excess to the most sustainable option. It’s not about elevating corporations to savior status, either, or waiting for bureaucratic red tape to do the work for us. It’s about remembering, honoring, and celebrating this swirling blue ball we call home.
Earth Day is the largest secular celebratory event in the world, with more than one billion expected to participate this year. It’s a memorial as much as it is a register, a metronome for a planet out of tune with itself. We take stock of our commitments and remember why it matters today a bit more than it does on those otherwise ordinary days.
So do we need to celebrate? That’s a personal choice, certainly. But if we think we’ve enlightened ourselves because we “fixed” (some of) our problems by committing to ditching plastic or buying an electric car this year, we soon forget that the work keeps going. Every day becomes the practice of celebrating the earth and protecting it—chopping wood, carrying water. And if we’re doing it right, we soon realize they are the celebrations, not the chores.