To protect our future, we need to adopt the Earth Day ethos every day. But is that really enough?
This year for Earth Day, I did something I’ve wanted to do for decades. I ordered one of the few existing original copies of the Whole Earth Catalog. They’re hard to find in decent condition and at reasonable prices anymore (one was going for more than $800!). But I found a fall 1969 edition for less than $100. It was a worthy spend, especially watching my seven-year-old daughter leafing through the pages created a lifetime ago. The decades of mustiness have that old, familiar smell. The years of wear are visible in its yellow, crisping pages. Its cover is worn and faded from the countless hands and shelves it has undoubtedly passed through.
A product of the Portola Institute, the catalog is filled with all kinds of relics of a bygone era. Surprisingly, though, an overwhelming number are still relevant today. There are detailed instructionals from the one-and-only Buckminster Fuller on building sustainable homes and geodesic domes. There are guides to art, fermenting, breastfeeding. There are state-of-the-art camping and climbing gear recommendations, automotive parts, and all manner of repair manuals. There are educational tools and books from the Life Sciences collection. Even the now-passé typewriter and slide projectors seem to have a place, too—relics, indeed, but reminders of simpler, less complicated times. The Whole Earth Catalog is filled with these reminders. Yet, it’s startling just how almost everything else inside its pages could easily fit into a list of today’s best sustainable products.
This is not happenstance; it’s the result of decades of effort, of the unlikely success of hippie culture once so synonymous with rejecting societal norms. It turns out these ideals are the very fabric of modernity. Living with the smallest possible impact on the planet while doing so in the most colorful, creative, and inclusive ways isn’t just our past, it is very much our future.
The Whole Earth
The Whole Earth catalog got its start in the fall of 1968. Its founder, Stanford-trained biologist Stewart Brand, would go on to join Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who bussed around the country sharing their namesake mood of merriment, low-impact living, and lots and lots of LSD. Between 1968 and 1972, the Whole Earth Catalog became a pretty big deal. By the time the first Earth Day happened in 1970, readership was in the millions, and it even earned itself a National Book Award.
The catalog’s dusty cover shows what was then the still-new image of earthrise, taken only a few years prior on Christmas Eve 1968, by Bill Anders, a member of the Apollo 8 crew. It shows a partially-obscured Earth floating in the thick, quiet darkness of space. Our meek, naked planet hanging there softly, like the opening of an eye in those first few moments of wakefulness. “We came all this way to explore the Moon,” Anders said of the photo he took, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
It’s hard to imagine now, as we have a selfie-taking-rover on Mars, what it must have been like to get that first glimpse of ourselves as we truly are, blue and marbly, large and powerful, yet small and insignificant all at the same time.
The catalog seemed to echo this new self-awareness, the feeling of the ethereal and the mystical married to the practical earthiness of, well, living on Earth. The catalog was a catch-all for the intellectuals as much as the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the treehuggers. It was a hub for things we now take for granted like the somewhat unlikely marriage between tech and nature. It took these seemingly odd bedfellows and tethered them in what’s now becoming the norm — solar panels and wind turbines, massive electric SUVs, food made in the lab instead of using up our finite resources.
This is where the world’s largest environmental movement started, moving off of the pages of the catalog more than 50 years ago, in 1970, and into the real pages of history. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had spent the better part of a decade opening eyes to the reality of agrochemicals and their impact on the planet. In Vietnam, an herbicide was one of the most lethal weapons, too: Agent Orange, the dioxin-producing defoliant made of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T brought decades of disease and death to Vietnamese and American soldiers alike, reinforcing the need for chemical regulations and corporate responsibility. There were rivers on fire from chemical contaminants. There were “forever chemicals” being poured onto cookware and takeout containers. Earth Day came to fruition as a change agent, ushering in things we now barely bat an eye at, like unleaded gasoline, pollution regulations, and restrictions on harmful chemicals.
Advancing the Counterculture Agenda
The counterculture movement that started in the 1970s has lent itself well to modernity. It’s not just the environmental advocacy Earth Day became synonymous with. One need only to look in any direction to see the impact of our bell-bottomed parents and grandparents, be it the commercialization of spiritual practices like yoga and meditation made popular by the long-haired disciples of Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Bhajan, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Peruse any supermarket aisles and you’ll see the ubiquity of whole, organic foods, and the commanding presence of sustainable vegan alternatives. And like those Merry Pranksters proffered, psychedelics are now also showing promise in treating some of the biggest health crises of our time. There are ‘60s and ‘70s inspired changes to fashion, transportation, design, technology, and even finance.
Yes, it seems the hippies were right, after all. And although much of it can still sound like a cross between New Age woo-woo cults and science fiction from a future that never quite comes, everywhere we look we see a greener world once envisioned by Earth Day’s founders now part of our politics, corporate growth strategies, school curriculums, and family projects.
There’s perhaps no better window into what a greener world “should” look like than the last year. Those quiet early months of coronavirus lockdown saw nature rebounding almost overnight, with animal sightings in the most unlikely of places, as if they’d just been sitting on the edges, waiting for us to take our leave.
Scientists are now looking at how the “quiet” impacted some of these animal communities to better understand how we may foster their success moving forward.
People were also more open to trying foods better for their health and the planet during the lockdown, too, as sales of sustainable vegan meat and dairy products skyrocketed; 2020 saw nearly $7 billion in sales of vegan food, and sales are expected to continue to rise. Traditional dairy is being displaced by dairy-free options like almond and oat milk at a rapid pace. While vegan options see double-digit growth, sales of dairy continue to decline. Vegan meat is heading in the same direction, taking market share away from the planetary offenders within the conventional meat industry as more people embrace meat made from plants, or in a lab.
Consumers are also embracing the shift toward electric vehicles and sustainable travel. Automotive brands now offer EVs for every price range and airlines are looking at meaningful ways to make air travel more environmentally friendly while staying affordable.
Red carpets and catwalks have turned green, too, with luxury now defined by sustainability and secondhand markets. Designer Stella McCartney recently summed it up: “As a designer, I think it’s the biggest compliment for your designs to have an afterlife—to me, that is luxury,” she said.
Luxury, it turns out, doesn’t need to equate to decadence and destruction.
Banks and investors, too, are seeking out opportunities to go green. Bank of America recently upped its sustainability commitments to more than $1 trillion. Celebrity investors like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Downey Jr., are helping usher in businesses that are forces for good. New Zealand is now in the process of passing the world’s first climate compliance laws for financial institutions.
One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to CS Lewis, but the author isn’t actually known, simplifies the last fifty years: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”
It’s true, things are different. So different in so many good ways. But the reality is we still have a long way to go.
Planet In Peril
For all of the good news, the harsh realities of ongoing devastation and destruction persist. The Amazon rainforest is seeing some of its worst razing in a decade. This is linked predominantly to the growing demand for meat; Brazil is home to the world’s second-largest cattle herd. Ranchers continue to destroy the world’s most important rainforest for coffee and palm oil production, among other industries.
The recent documentary Seaspiracy pointed to the depletion and pollution of our world’s oceans, too — the dominant cerulean blue that colors our Earth from outer space is now thick with plastic debris, human trafficking, and murder on an incomprehensible scale: Trillions of fish are being pulled from the oceans every year. This, while we’re simultaneously dumping unthinkable amounts of plastic into the waters. By 2050, experts say plastic could outnumber fish in the oceans. This is a problem that will impact the oxygen levels on the planet, freshwater supplies, as well as the oceans’ ability to sequester carbon.
The oceans are also facing big changes from melting ice shelves; a new report released earlier this month finds significant crises ahead as the planet warms. Another report released this month found that 60 of the world’s largest banks have actually increased their investments into fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, and most significantly in 2020, despite the growing demand for alternatives.
Then, there’s the matter of greenwashing—the false promises propped up by bottom-line-driven industries. It’s such a problem that the EU has now passed legislation to protect against such platitudes from the financial industry.
That’s not to say commerce can’t be an agent for good — we shop far more often than we vote, after all. But, this year especially, the co-opting of the “Earth Day Every Day” message is on overdrive. Perhaps it’s sheer exhaustion from the last year. But is the slogan really convincing anyone?
Earth Day Every Day?
The inherent problem with “every day” mentality is how quickly everyday things become mundane. It imparts ordinary, things that move into the background of our lives. And even though most people want these better practices to become the default, letting them become mediocre devalues their significance. Once we believe we’ve solved our problems, we cease looking for ways to improve. And when it comes to the caretaking of our planet, that’s a short-sighted, harmful position.
There’s an old Buddhist story about a monk before and after he reaches enlightenment. Before the elevated state of consciousness, the monk chopped wood and carried water—but so much wanted to be freed from the tasks he deemed so ordinary and meaningless. He finally attains that state of enlightenment, seeing the whole of the universe within himself. And what does he do after that? Chops wood and carried water. The only thing that shifts there, of course, is his perception of the world, and more percipient: his place in it. Is there a truer definition of enlightenment? If we can articulate it, it would be clarity, not entitlement. But if we move toward a perception that we’ve enlightened ourselves because we “fixed” (some of) our problems by making the status quo “every day”, we soon forget how important it is to keep doing the work, to see how we can make the world, and ourselves, even better. We chop wood. We carry water.
Earth Day is not just about shifting our habits of excess to the most sustainable option. It’s not about elevating corporations to savior status, or waiting for bureaucratic red tape to do the work for us. It’s about remembering, honoring, and celebrating this swirling blue ball we call home.
Just as the spirit of Christmas is worthy of sharing year-round, or showing gratitude beyond the Thanksgiving table, or honoring the service people who protect our country every single day, not just on Veterans or Memorial Day, there is a reason we isolate those days. We assign those days as being more than ordinary because their weight is worthy. They’re turbo-boosters for our morality; they reignite our commitments to what is good, what is right, and what is worth protecting. They remind us to take stock in ourselves, surely, but indeed they are also a reminder too to look more deeply at how interconnected we all are on this floating blue marble. And lest we forget, we’re more a product of it than we are individuals standing atop it.
Earth Day deserves its own status among all of these holidays, now more than ever. It’s the largest secular celebratory event in the world, with more than one billion expected to partake this year. It’s a memorial as much as it is a register, a metronome for a planet constantly finding its rhythm. And we need to look forward to celebrating it year after year, renewing our pledge as caretakers and as beneficiaries. We must take stock of our commitments and remember why it matters today a bit more than it does on those otherwise ordinary “every” days. Yes, of course, Earth Day is every day. But right now, it is also so much more than that. And it probably always will be.