Recognizing Earth Day as a national holiday could breathe new life into a day that seems to have lost much of its original meaning.
The above image is probably one of my favorites taken from space (technically several images stitched together). I can't be certain, but I would guess this picture evokes a similar response from most people who see it, which is that wealth is disproportionately concentrated in the northern hemisphere.
The explanation for the economic disparity on display in this stunning image goes well beyond the scope of this article, but the implications do not. We all live on a single planet--a fact that is easily forgotten when we speak of world of nations and states--and solving global environmental problems will require extraordinary efforts from those countries that created them.
The kind of planetary self-awareness that this image stirs up could also be stirred up if the U.S. Government recognized Earth Day as a federal holiday and the entire country treated it like a national holiday.
40 years later
Sure we've come a long way in the 40 years since the first Earth Day in 1970, but in that time we have also witnessed a slow and steady cooptation of Earth Day's socio-ecological messages by corporate interests and professional marketers trying to pitch their latest 'green' and 'eco-friendly' wares.
As Earth Day founder, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson expressed at an Earth Day gathering in Denver on April 22, 1970, "Earth Day can--and it must--lend a new urgency and a new support to solving problems that still threaten to tear the fabric of this society... the problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions."
"Environment is all of America and its problems," said Nelson. "It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit."
Breaking from the dominant conservationist/preservationist discourse of 'environmentalism' the freshman Democrat Senator from Wisconsin emphasized the social-ness of our environment and how Earth Day was as much about protecting the planet as it was about protecting its inhabitants.
The question is: how do we reframe Earth Day with the messages originally imbued by its founders? Conjuring up a piece by Joe Romm from Earth Days past, Brian Merchant at Treehugger suggests that renaming of Earth Day might be in order. But instead of scrapping the whole thing, I would argue that we make Earth Day a federal holiday with all of the rights and privileges associated with the title.
Earth Day: How does the third Monday in April sound?
I look at my environmentalism much as I do my national heritage – foundational elements of who I am. On the Fourth of July, I conjure up feelings of national pride in the country and its revolutionary roots; on Memorial and Veteran's Days, I think of those brave soldiers who have fought and died for this country; and on Earth Day, I go to work and spend the day writing cynical pieces like this and cleaning lame PR pitches out of my email inbox.
But Earth Day has the capacity to be so much more. It has the potential to be a powerful tool for education, discussion, and the mobilization of concerted political action on behalf of the environment. That is why I am calling for Congress to pass a law recognizing the third Monday in April as Earth Day -- a holiday where Americans from all walks of life, no matter their religious or political preference, gather to celebrate the one component of our address each and every global citizen shares in common: Earth.
In 2010, the U.S. Government will recognize 10 federal holidays, half of which are squeezed into the 'holiday season' between November and January. And coincidentally, there is a three-and-a-half month gap between Washington's Birthday in mid-February and Memorial Day at the end of May, the middle of which would fall right around April 22.
I can just imagine parades on Main St. with floats pulled by veggie-diesel powered trucks. And guys with funny hats driving around in little electric cars in stead of those 2-stroke atmosphere-chokers they currently drive around on.
But there would be more than parades. Kids would have a day off from school to explore and see the new life and new growth oozing from every ecological nook; National and state parks would wave entrance fees to encourage visitors; massive volunteer mobilizations could do some serious damage planting trees, cleaning up rivers or insulating low-income housing.
I envision an Earth Day with no gifts, no expectations of gifts, no church, no football, no flying to grandma's house. I envision an Earth Day where people can gain a more authentic connection to the planet than what is being offered in the latest green gadget.
Once again, I'm reminded of the words of Earth Day founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who said: "Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures."
All of this is what Earth Day could be, but isn't... at least not yet.
Images: NASA; Pogo via Walt Kelley