What does Earth Day mean anymore?

Posted April 21st, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on What does Earth Day mean anymore?

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Have you ever noticed that whenever we make a big national celebration out of what was once prophetic and cutting edge it loses its, you know, its cutting edge? Is the fact that Earth Day is being celebrated by corporations and the White House and governments around the world and big NGOs a mark of success, or co-optation?

Did making a national holiday of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday incite more protest in the streets against racism and injustice or tame his legacy? Will making Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint in the Catholic Church remove forever the threat he posed to that very same church by his words and his prophetic witness?

From Apollo 8 - NASA

From Apollo 8 – NASA

Has Earth Day brought down corporate polluters and earth-destroying capitalists, caused people in the world to stop consuming more than they need or aspiring to consume as much as they want? Is it serving the cause of slowing down the Sixth Great Extinction or lowering greenhouse gas emissions, or giving us things to do that make us feel like we are when actually we are not? Are we in less trouble because of it?

Maybe I’m just getting crabby after all these years of watching so many people change, so many movements come and go, so much inspired creativity and commitment to ecological and social justice, but also seeing the drivers leading us to catastrophe proceeding at an ever-more rapid pace anyway. I mean, are we getting anywhere?

Given the dire content of Earth news these days, a person can get discouraged.

So what does Earth Day mean in 2014, in this time of an ecological crisis that we could not even imagine back in 1970? It means among other things that we have to do more than wonderful programs and teleseminars. We have to do more than education and consciousness-raising events. We have to start living differently, radically differently. We have to start getting out of the market/consumer society as much as we can and start focusing more of our energy on creating right now the new kinds of communities and cultures that can survive this era of crisis and collapse and begin moving towards a new creation. And we have to start engaging with and supporting more deeply those places and spaces where this new creation is being attempted – often by trial and error, I mean, usually by trial and error.

To do that meaningfully, we will need to leave ego at the door of those spaces, or better, allow them to evaporate in the urgency of the moment. We will need to get out of our comfort zones, including those of us who have been engaged in the work of ecological and social justice all our lives. We will need to stop being so careful with our messages and start being more prophetic in the language we speak. By that, I do not mean shouting or calling other people names or threatening or being dismissive and disrespectful. I mean telling the truth without padding it with “don’t worry, it will all be okay” messages.

Because it will not be okay – not if people insist on the aspirations of this consumer culture.

And let’s also be clear about the economic and political climate in which we in the U.S. will be carrying on our work. As new studies are showing, we no longer live in a democracy and oligarchical rule is becoming deeply entrenched. Watch this 25-minute Bill Moyers’ interview with Paul Krugman about the new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty and the state of wealth here in the U.S. to see this picture clearly. Krugman and Moyers are not softening the reality of the situation here – our voices no longer have any power or influence over policymakers. Indeed, the powerful and their wealthy backers can’t hear us anymore and don’t intend to.


Unless we are willing to create the kinds of movements that force political change, like the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements of the 50s-early 70s, voices of protest will die in the winds of money blowing through our nation’s political system here, as they did in my state of Wisconsin after those dream days in the streets of Madison following the inauguration of our Koch-funded governor in 2010.

As long as creating more retail opportunities is the drug of choice to keep people dazed and powerless, and as long as that works, movements like that are not likely to become the social change agents required now. Also, as long as people attempt to build movements by top-down approaches, via national organizations with big budgets but no real local ownership, or by online petitions (which usually also ask for donations) that make people feel like they’re having an impact when they really are not, the fundamentals will not change. Unless those most impacted, most harmed, most marginalized (what are often called “frontline communities”) are at the heart of this struggle, attempts at “movements” won’t go far.

It takes relationships, the real personal kind, the unselfish kind, to create the trust that can withstand the time, difficulties, and challenges of sustained movements.

I give as one example: it was the unemployed miners, families living in poor communities, and development of local leadership by way of locally rooted organizations in the coal country of Appalachia that took ownership of the movement to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, sustaining it over many years now (an inspiring example).

So how do we create movements more compelling in people’s lives than retail opportunities? How do we get passed the cultural fog that makes it impossible for most of us to really SEE what is being done to us and to this planet that still holds us but which embrace is fraying and weakening quickly. It will not be able to hold us much longer.

Number of planets required to support business as usual. Source: Global Footprint Network

Number of planets required to support business as usual. Source: Global Footprint Network

We’re being told by scientists that we have 10-15 years to start drastically reducing carbon in the atmosphere to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. That means beginning drastic reductions in carbon emissions as of now. Do you see that happening any time soon? Meanwhile, there are still those who want us to believe we can change from those sources of energy quickly and go on with the levels of consumption and technology we have come to know. That is a lie. What we can have is a sustainable life scaled down to the planet’s biocapacity – and create perhaps a more just, richer, more satisfying, more ethical life in the process.

What we can do is try to separate ourselves from the market forces that brought about the crises by learning again how to live within the limits of the planet, the eco-communities of our bioregions, the available resilient and renewable gifts of our local natural communities in a world that puts justice and solidarity at its moral center so that no one has more than they need while others aren’t even close. That we can do.

As long as we keep putting off that fundamental challenge, as long as we think getting Walmart to sell organic produce is a step forward (undermining the very creation of those new communities/cultures of local farmers in relationship with food consumers in a just, dignified, balanced relationship) rather than part of the problem, we will not get even close to building the new creation, the new cultures and communities, that can make it possible for us to do the Great Turning, before the Earth does it for us in ways we aren’t going to like very much.

Earth and moon from Saturn - Cassini image

Earth and moon from Saturn – Cassini image

Honor the Earth and let it teach us again how to live. And however that learning challenges us to live differently, may we have the wisdom to do it in time – which means right now.


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