Earth Day began in 1970 with the goal of inspiring a generation of people to take action for the future of the planet and, consequently, humankind. Today, the national event has transformed into an occasion to post nature photos on Instagram. However, action in favor of environmentally sound practices and policies must accompany the aesthetic expressions of love for nature in order to mitigate the negative effects of humanity on Earth.
The environmental movement in the United States began with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book highlighted the threats chemical pesticides demonstrate to both animals and the public. After sparking a national firestorm, practices quickly changed – DDT, the insecticide outed as the cause for decreases in bird populations, was banned in 1972. 1970 brought the first Earth Day, the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water and Endangered Species acts quickly followed in 1972 and 1973, respectively. People were inspired and acted upon that enthusiasm on and beyond Earth Day to bring about new environmental policies.
Today, mass movements are much different. While modern technology and access to information has made organizing protests significantly easier – and that is certainly an upside – it can be difficult to move those protests off of social media and into a physical realm that gives them real volume and power. Additionally, information on modern issues facing the world is equal parts available and scarce, because any time there is an article on the impacts of one product or practice there is another attempting to write them off. Everything thus becomes a debate, turning social movements that should be universal into increasingly polarized debates.
Despite the existing dichotomies, most citizens do not want to see trash on the beach or smog blurring the skyline. They want their streets to be clean and access to green spaces. In the same line, Instagram and Facebook feeds flood with nature pictures on Earth Day. Everyone can say that a picture of a turtle on a Hawaiian beach is beautiful, and I truly believe the people who post and respond positively to such posts are expressing sincere appreciation for nature. Still, these expressions of awe and love cannot replace action.
A similarly aesthetically driven Earth Day celebration took place on Northwestern’s campus. The Earth Day Brunch in Allison Dining Hall was pretty, but it did nothing to promote the health of the environment. The food was better than normal, and I loved eating a wider variety of fruits – but it was not an environmentally friendly meal. The fruits were not locally grown and, alongside the huge amounts of meat and cheese (which have a high carbon footprint), did not come with any notice of or concern for the environmental impacts of producing, packaging and transporting such goods. Despite being pretty and plentiful, the array of food didn’t actually say or do anything to promote Earth’s future or make students more conscious of the environment.
The brunch, social media posts and other forms of aesthetic participation in Earth Day promote the anthropocentric view of Earth as a tool for mankind. Moreover, unless these expressions of Earth-appreciation are generated through environmentally friendly practices and activities, they do nothing to promote the true message of Earth Day and the future of our planet.
We can – and should – do more. Whether by protesting, demonstrating or simply changing our daily habits, every single person can adjust their lifestyles to be kinder to Mother Nature. The pictures are stunning and the love is genuine, but we have to back up our posts with actions.