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Earth Day loses its appeal

By Chloe S. Maxmin
On April 24, 2012

I am a committed environmental activist, and I think Earth Day is the bane of the environmental movement. Why? Because every day that we drink, eat or breathe is "earth day." Yet Americans officially devote only 24 hours to being green deliberately. Too many people believe that celebrating Earth Day can exempt them from further action. This is absurd, and it's damaging the environmental cause. The environmentalist movement needs new strategies that drive environmental awareness into everyday life if we ever hope to address the challenges of climate change.

Earth Day has produced some benefits. The first Earth Day in 1970 rallied 20 million people in the United States alone. Today, 1 billion people in 180 countries around the world participate in Earth Day. This is a testament to the solidarity that so many environmentalists yearn for. Clearly, people do desire to participate in meaningful collective action on behalf of the planet.

But the enthusiasm aroused on Earth Day is not sustained and does not create meaningful change. I turn to Aristotle's description of the two types of virtue: virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought "arises and grows from teaching; that is why it needs experience and time." But virtue of character is achieved only through action. Knowledge plus action creates a habit, and a habit is durable.

The actions people take on Earth Day do not form habits. People are green for one day-maybe even for one week. Unfortunately, the pressure to recycle, bike or change a light-bulb on Earth Day does not carry over to the other 364 days of the year. You won't get coupons, free gifts or the feeling of solidarity when you use your reusable bag on November 15. No one will remind you to recycle on August 22. Behavior tends to degrade as the memory of Earth Day fades.

Two recent reports highlight the movement's need for new strategies and show that green actions have not turned into everyday habits for most Americans. A recent Gallup poll reveals sobering data comparing Americans' perceptions of climate change in 1997 and 2010. The number of people who think that they will never experience the effects of climate change in their lifetimes increased by 10 percent.

In 2003, 61 percent of Americans thought that climate change was caused by human activities. This number dived to 50 percent in 2010. Another report by George Mason U., "Climate Change in the American Mind," reinforces this picture. In 2008, 44 percent of respondents said they would switch to energy efficient light bulbs, but by 2011 that figure had dropped to 34 percent. In 2008, 42 percent said that Americans' energy-saving actions would reduce global warming. Only 26 percent believed this in 2011.

The environmental movement is drifting further from its goals as fewer people are committed to energy-saving actions or believe they can have an impact. The apparent "power" of Earth Day has not converted thought to habit. Instead, Earth Day has a soporific effect of creating a false sense of accomplishment. At the same time, millions of dollars and massive human energy are spent on mounting, advertising and coordinating single events on Earth Day alone. If these financial and human resources were distributed throughout the year, there would be a much more tangible effect.

Instead of focusing on one day, environmentalists need to take a more holistic approach that will create lasting habits: Launching campaigns that promote environmental education every day of the year, starting programs that make it easy to recycle in the winter and mobilizing bottom-up support for climate legislation. The mission should be to provide permanent opportunities for people to be green. Frequent events and awareness-raising gatherings should pervade communities as well. Constant reminders to be and think green-light-bulb swaps, incentives and green logos on websites-should permeate society. Then these activities will become ingrained in our lives, converting ideas to habits. On Earth Day, it's easy to be green. This should be true on all days of the year.

The 1 billion people in 180 countries participating in Earth Day annually can lead the healing of our planet when they begin to commit 365 days of the year. This will not happen instantaneously. But it is an important goal. We cannot let Earth Day create a false sense of security. We shouldn't be fooled by energy savings that accrue over 24 hours or by enthusiasm that does not produce sustainable action. Environmentalists need new strategies that will turn healing into habit, and create a movement, not a moment. 

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