Happy Earth Day! I don’t know about you, but Earth Day has been around for as long as I’ve been alive. That’s longer than Martin Luther King Day even, which is almost as old as Christmas.
Recently, I heard someone talking about the first Earth Day in reverent tones. Before Earth Day, this person had never experienced a bunch of people getting together and caring about something, especially something big and important like the whole damn planet. So it’s nice to know that Earth Day makes a lot of people feel good.
But then making people feel good is kind of the problem with Earth Day. It’s not so much for hard-core environmentalists—they’re so dour and gloomy doomy all the time that if they feel genuinely good, just one day out of the year, we could probably harvest significant solar energy out of it—but for regular folks. Earth Day is like celebrating a diet on which you never followed through. I’m talking about all of us who think we’re saving the world by buying fair trade coffee and organic vegetables, recycling everything, driving hybrid cars and paying Public Service Company of New Mexico extra so we can pretend our electricity comes from wind power.
I’m not saying, exactly, that millions upon millions have been suckered by “greenwashing” but, well, if PT Barnum could have gone into a business other than circuses, it would have been environmentally friendly products and services.
Most of us in the US who think of ourselves as conscientious about the environment are environmentalists “lite,” pretty much the diet soda version. We’re happy to support the cause, so long as it makes us feel good and we don’t have to read the label too closely.
We buy “fair trade” coffee, but we don’t really know what that means or if the program is effective. Great logo, though. “Organic,” now a technical term regulated and licensed by the USDA, is more instructive than “natural,” which has no legal meaning whatsoever, but it doesn’t guarantee any kind of energy efficiency in its manufacture or distribution. In many cases, recycling is more of a guilt-assuager than a viable technique for productive reuse, and hybrid electric vehicles, like nuclear energy, may present more disposal problems than they are worth.
That’s the tip of the iceberg. Those cool, feel-good Energy Star rating stickers that make you glow with pride whenever you buy a new dishwasher or refrigerator are more often earned on the manufacturer’s say-so than on independent verification. Clean coal is a filthy lie, even if it powers an electric car and even if President Obama says it. We’ve slowly awakened to the evils of plastic water bottles, but how many people are willing to drink tap water or put pressure on companies to use and reuse uniform glass bottles?
At the same time, diet-environmentalists will happily oppose what’s good for them because of urban legends. For the last time, people, windmills don’t kill birds. Well, OK, birds do sometimes die as a result of flying into windmills, but each year more birds are killed by flying into glass windows, colliding with cars and loitering too close to house cats. So, if you’re really concerned about the birds, give up your cat, car and windows before getting all huffy about windmills.
But Earth Day is not about getting huffy; it’s about getting happy. As far as I can tell, it has a lot to do with face paint and lame crafts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of anointing a day to celebrate the earth and to bring awareness to a host of tangled issues, except for the tendency of such days to become placeholders for any real action. Eventually, they just become good days to host a BBQ. Uncomfortable with racism, oppression or the erosion of civil rights? Good thing we’ve got MLK Day to galvanize us around those issues. On Labor Day, I can practically feel the love and support for unions just oozing out of my fellow Americans. May Day is just too commie for this country but, then again, we wouldn’t ever know or care what it stood for, so long as there were hot dogs.
The list of inane days dedicated to inane things by New Mexico governors and mayors is mind-boggling. It’s a good way to make some small, crazy special interest group shut up and go away: Hey, we’ve officially named today for you!—now scram.
By all means, enjoy Earth Day. Plant a tree, pick up trash. Hell, bust out some non-toxic, naturally foraged, locally-made face paint if you really want. After all, Earth Day is kind of a holy day in Santa Fe. We have Catholic Mass, pueblo feast days, countless deep-rooted traditional festivities from many cultures, so I suppose we should honor the blander, whiter Earth Day as well.
But wake up the next day ready to care more about reality than about logos, slogans and brand names. Wake up skeptical about feel-good environmentalism. Wake up ready to embrace the day when you have to drink your recycled toilet water.
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