When the importance of protecting the environment seems obvious to many who recognize threats such as global warming and extinction, you may wonder if it is really necessary or effective to dedicate a day to raising environmental awareness. After all, if we should live like every day is Earth Day, why do we need an Earth Day at all?
According to Earth Day Network, at its conception in the 1970s, Earth Day was a national political movement, led by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, to raise awareness for environmental protection and put environmental issues on the nation’s political agenda. But since the ’70s, for many American citizens, Earth Day has faded from its original glory to no more than an out-of-uniform day for some high school students. The political rage that once motivated millions of people to march, protest and demand reform from coast to coast has now become subdued and replaced with defeated acceptance. If we will never be able to halt climate change, then what’s the point of Earth Day and in trying to do anything at all?
In a world dominated by commercialization and false promises, Earth Day may seem superficial and insufficient in meeting the growing demands of environmental sustainability. Big corporations greenwash in an effort to profit off of environmental concern; politicians declare empty wishes for the wellbeing of the environment with fake smiles and no intention to follow through on concrete policy reform. And so, it is easy to become disillusioned and cynical about Earth Day.
Although the motivations of some large corporations and politicians are questionable, there are positive effects to their environmental actions. Mike Burnett ’18, an Earth Systems major and vice president of an ecology club on campus, sees pros and cons in this complex relationship between activists, corporations and politicians.
“I have mixed feelings about that,” Burnett said. “I’ve had companies who want to do a partnership where we advertise a product because it’s sustainable, and it really seems like sometimes they’re trying to co-opt that cause with the aim of making money. I’m not super into that, but I suppose it’s better than not having any environmental awareness at all. It’s a balance because raising awareness is good and having companies that have that kind of advertising capacity can be really helpful, but people need to be aware of what they’re really contributing to.”
Additionally, even some genuine proponents of environmental welfare and protection find that Earth Day is not a very memorable event. When asked how they have spent previous Earth Days, many students, like Vrinda Suresh ’21, draw a blank. Suresh noted in an email that although she is an extremely environmentally conscious person, Earth Day has never stood out to her.
“I feel like I’ve never really done much for Earth Day, which is kind of sad,” she wrote. “I think my most memorable Earth Day was in like fifth or sixth grade, and all I did was make a poster that said ‘Save the Earth’ or something and post it on the classroom door, which I’m sure was super effective in conserving the environment. But other than that, I would always just do what I’d do on any other day — school, extracurriculars, homework.”
Suresh is not alone in treating previous Earth Days like any other day. When I was in high school, Earth Day was only memorable for the T-shirts with globes plastered on the back that the entire student body was forced to wear.
However, according to Suresh, “that doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way forever.” In fact, many events around campus celebrate the importance of the environment and expanding the local community of environmentalists.
Earth Day as a community-builder
I first set foot in the Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building to interview Richard Nevle, deputy director of the Earth Systems program at Stanford. As a self-diagnosed fuzzy, milling around the Engineering Quad in general is enough to make my stomach bubble with discomfort. Interviewing the deputy director of the Earth Systems program about Earth Day, a subject I will readily admit I did not know enough about, seemed outside of my domain, to say the least. As an outsider to the environmental enthusiast community, I was originally daunted by the prospect of writing this article. However, I was immediately reassured by Nevle’s easygoing disposition and welcoming personality — two characteristics that are consistent with his hopes for Earth Day.
For Nevle, Earth Day is more than just a day to celebrate the environment and all of its beauty; it is also a day to expand the group of people who identify as environmentalists by redefining “environmentalist” and by helping people find their place in the green community. Nevle believes that “every student on this campus has a way to contribute,” whether their contribution is through art, writing, activism or simply spending time appreciating the natural world.
While appreciating the environment and becoming conscious of its aesthetic and functional gifts may seem to add little to the environmental movement, Nevle asserts that since people pay attention to what they love, paying more attention to the environment can “help to deepen that connection with the Earth and help to catalyze a state in which we can be not only more attuned to the natural world but also more thoughtful about ways that we can live in the natural world.” Ultimately, Nevle proposes that becoming cognizant of the environment causes people to “think about the implications of how we’re living and to think of how to walk more lightly on [the Earth]. ”
To broaden the definition of an environmentalist, Nevle advocates for the creation of more events like Earth in Color, which took place at the O’Donohue Stanford Family Educational Farm this Earth Day. Nevle explains that the event aims to showcase how “people of color have engaged with the environment for as long as there’s been an environmental movement.” He finds events like Earth in Color important because “people of color have always been a part of the environmental movement, but in the United States, that movement, for many, has looked very white.” Making the environmental movement more inclusive for marginalized and minority communities is one of Nevle’s goals for Earth Day this year.
“I’m excited by the potential of events of like Earth in Color to broaden how we think about environmentalists and the environmental movement to be more holistic and more embracing of a lot of social movements,” he said.
Like Nevle, many students on campus feel Earth Day is a great community-builder. Burnett appreciates Earth Day as a “cool way to bring people together and keep the environment and sustainability on the front of your mind.”
Burnett usually spends his Earth Days at campus events like EarthFest, which is held on Columbae’s lawn and seeks to raise awareness and create community. This year, he plans to attend a sustainability fair to talk about environmental issues facing Stanford.
Is Earth Day every day feasible?
Although Nevle, Bennett and Suresh will attest to living life like “every day is Earth Day,” none of them are disheartened by the fact that every day is not Earth Day for the majority of the population. Instead of viewing this fact as conclusive evidence for an unsolvable epidemic of selfishness and ignorance, the three Earth enthusiasts see the lack of environmental involvement throughout the year as a space filled with potential. Despite being disappointed by Earth Days in the past, Suresh hopes to see more people “taking care of and giving back to the Earth” this Earth Day.
Having a day dedicated to the environment undoubtedly assists with outreach for environmental programs and movements. Even for those who cannot dedicate their lives to championing environmental causes, Earth Day serves as a valuable reminder to be conscious of one’s engagement with the Earth on a daily basis.
Ultimately, Earth Day is what you make of it. For me, it became a superficial means of facilitating environmental concern and awareness in my high school community. However, after speaking with Nevle, Bennett and Suresh, I feel renewed hope and a responsibility to make this Earth Day more meaningful than those prior. The question remains of how to inspire other communities to become engaged in Earth Day in whatever ways are feasible for them. As Nevle aptly puts it, Earth Day is meaningful as “a way of helping the rest of the public who are not as tuned in to environmental issues to become involved.”
Contact Phoebe Quinton at firstname.lastname@example.org.