On Sunday, April 22 Earth Day will be observed for the 38th year by an estimated half billion people in nearly 200 countries. The Earth Day Network (www.earthday.org) credits Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin for originating the first event in 1970 after witnessing a massive oil spill on the Santa Barbara coast. Nelson used the protests of the Vietnam War era as a model for the immensely popular event, which he hoped would show the strength of support for environmental legislation.
Sen. Nelson’s calculations proved correct. Earth Day galvanized citizen concern over deteriorating ecological conditions and legitimized environmental protection as a national priority. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts date back to this era, stoking one of the most bitter and consequential ideological battles of our times.
This year the Earth Day Network is featuring Campaign Switch, which encourages folks to replace their inefficient incandescent light bulbs with longer-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs. You can enter your pledge to switch right there on the website. No doubt thousands, hopefully millions, will take the pledge. But will we give up our gold watches? Our ranchettes? Our cars?
Replacing a wasteful light bulb with one with a smaller environmental “footprint” is a small step which when repeated millions of times will have a positive impact. But will such a campaign move us closer to the necessary revelation of scale, or serve as a distraction from the real level of action required to provide our civilization a soft landing?
The apparently incredible wealth of the United States economy was always based on cheap energy and the proposition that all things have their price: the mountains and plains, the forests, the air we breathe and the water we crave. Even fellow humans we regarded as inferior or feared for their differentness have served their time in the cauldron of enterprise. Now the oil’s just about gone - and the natives are growing restless.
Our economy has become critically vulnerable through the over-consumption and wasting of the earth, which has brought forth not the regeneration of society but a cancerous industry of falseness so overpowering that its slogans pass for culture among our young people. And always, the underlying message is always the same: not enough, not enough. Somehow changing even a billion light bulbs falls short of the proper message.
An economy of hyper-consumerism thrives in a social atmosphere of hyper-individualism, a disconnection from one’s surroundings and one’s fellow humans. Harvard professor Robert Putnam drew on a quarter century of observations and interviews to conclude in his book Bowling Alone that Americans have far fewer regular social contacts than ever before. At the same time we scatter our small shares of the economy outward into oblivion, forsaking and impoverishing those close to us whose “entrepreneurship” -" a neighborhood store, a shoe shop - we might value more, if only we gave them the chance.
In days past many, perhaps most, folks were suspicious of new-fangled inventions. Today it seems Madison Avenue has pretty much eased us past such “barrier to trade” attitudes. It doesn’t really matter, then, that the manufacturers and backers of the compact fluorescent light bulb admit they have no program in mind for recycling the potentially deadly mercury contained in those appliances.
There is real and justified urgency in those who are moved to act upon the predicament in which we earthlings, two-legged or otherwise, find ourselves. As time passes without a profound and meaningful transformation in our cultural worldview, in what is commonly recognized as acceptable and what is not, urgency could turn into desperation and bring unintended consequences. Already we see, in the growing resignation to increased drilling and coal and nuclear power, the seeds of yet more tragedy to come. With few exceptions, it does not appear that we are willing to give up on the idea of everlasting luxury. Not just yet.
We don’t need new light bulbs as badly as we need a better answer to a rarely-asked question: “What is an economy for?” Is it about maximizing private profit and opulence for a few or is it for meeting real human needs while harmonizing with the rest of creation? The time has arrived to set our sails in the right direction.