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REthinking Earth Day

April 16, 2019

Earth Day was founded on April 22, 1970, as a response to an oil spill that ravaged Santa Barbara, California, the year prior. An unassuming Wisconsin senator by the name Gaylord Nelson realized the urgency of environmental preservation and highlighted the history of corporate negligence in regard to pollution and the waste products of industry. The Vietnam war was in full swing and Americans were becoming increasingly conscious of their impact on the global community. Nelson channeled the momentum of anti-war/anti-establishment sympathies into his urgent call for social and political environmental reforms. In a speech addressed to students and community members in Colorado during the first Earth Day celebration, Nelson championed his comprehensive and indiscriminate call to action: 

“Environment is all of America and its problems: it’s the rats in the ghetto, it’s a hungry child in a land of affluence, it is housing that’s not worthy of the name, and neighborhoods not fit to inhabit. Environment is a problem perpetuated by expenditures of tens of billions of dollars a year on the Vietnam war, instead of on our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted, urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people. If our cities don’t work, America won’t work and the battle to save them won’t be won in Vietnam.”

The 1970s saw sweeping changes for environmental protection with the creation of the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), as well as the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. America and other countries had a newfound stake in the state of the environment during the ’70s, a stake which is ever more pertinent today. 

A quick search on Google for 2019 Earth Day events in Minneapolis will return a plethora of community clean-up events throughout city parks and green spaces. Although plastic pollution and littering are major concerns to the environment, the celebrations seem somewhat one-note. Recently Earth Day has devolved into a superficial time to purge the guilt of excessive consumerism by tidying up strips of highway and planting trees. While these practices are indeed beneficial to the delicate ecosystems we share, they don’t address the systemic structures that prolong lasting environmental injustices. In this way, Earth Day should be as much about self-reflection and correction as it is about the conventional celebrations we uphold. 

For instance, many are familiar with the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle” and it is true that many of the environmental efforts in America emphasize recycling. However, the notorious “3 R’s” model misses the full scope of considerations that should be made when consuming goods and services. A more complete model would look something like, “rethink/refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle/compost, recover, dispose,” although it is a bit more of a mouthful. By placing “rethink/refuse” at the top, we put the emphasis on making comprehensive, ecological choices by asking ourselves whether or not we need a new item and refusing to purchase goods that are not environmentally friendly. The next step would be to “reduce” which is equal parts reflection and action. First, we must analyze our consumption habits and then look for areas where we can reduce that consumption. Whether it be walking to campus instead of driving every day, or buying in bulk to conserve packaging, reduction is the most underestimated tier in the model. “Reuse” and “recycle/compost” are the most familiar and more faithfully practiced terms in America. Try to buy clothes and other materials second-hand when possible, and when new is the only option, purchase well-made goods that last. “Recover” and “dispose” fall on the more unsavory end of the model and should be last resort options in the life cycle of a product. 

The more comprehensive “3 R’s” model is just one example of how we can employ a more holistic approach to Earth Day, making sure to not overlook our faults and instead correct our habits for a cleaner, greener tomorrow. Earth Day 1970 achieved a near impossible feat by uniting all people—conservative and liberal, rich and poor, urbanites and farmers, business people and service workers—in the call for safety and security in tomorrow. Earth Day is not a movement confined to a single day each year but is instead a time to pause and further invest in the planet with a vested interest in us.