Although this article was written in 1996, and contains references to events and people from that era, much of Weilbacher’s critique remains relevant today.  -Ed.


EarthDay GraphicEvery Day is NOT Earth Day

Reflections on the True Meaning of Earth Day

by Mike Weilbacher

I-blue‘ll admit it up front: I’m a sucker for Earth Day. I’m a child of the first Earth Day in 1970, for its tidal wave of publicity captivated my teenage attention and launched my career. My wife and I met planning Philadelphia’s Earth Day ’90 extravaganza – her parade met my outdoor stage, and the rest was history. Today, my workplace’s largest education program has become Philly’s longest running Earth Day event.

So few things annoy me more than the standard environmental knee-jerk position on Earth Day. You know it well, and have probably recited it like some Zen mantra: every day is Earth Day; make every day Earth Day.

As usual, we got it all wrong.

Because the environmental movement began as a countercultural phenomenon, we simply can’t stand our own successes, and continually sabotage our greatest gains. Like Earth Day.

Just think of what’s happened. Millions of kids across the planet are gearing up for some celebration of the day, perhaps a tree planting, a litter clean-up, a bad assembly featuring some whining folksinger (“Please save the rainforest, boys and girls, and when you’re done, please save every large endangered mammal”), or a recycled art contest, where eminently recyclable objects like cans and egg cartons are irrevocably glued to each other and turned into wholly non-recyclable monstrosities that are trashed after the event is over (and we’re teaching what here?).

OK, bad examples, but what it means is so startlingly simple it has flown way over our still-shaggy heads. Earth Day has arrived; it has planted a taproot in the mainstream of American pop culture, and like it or not, there it will stay, and grow, and blossom…

…Into a new intemational holiday that will one day rival Christmas in its scope. I’m dead serious. Signs of this were first revealed during the extraordinary event that was Earth Day’90. While the first Earth Day was an exclusively American college-oriented teach-in, Earth Day ’90 graduated into a global festival of more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries gathering to, in some cases, perform quite meaningful work: restore rivers, save species, reclaim battered landscapes. Earth Day ’90 was, barring world wars or Michael Jackson concerts, the largest mass event in world history.

Today, the sound of the holiday embedding itself in our cultural psyche can be heard everywhere. In schools: Earth Day has become a part of many school curricula; kids are growing up knowing that Earth Day is April 22nd, and doing something relevant on or near that day. In politics: every April 22nd, President Clinton – with Vice President Green, I mean, Gore, at his side – hosts a press conference to announce another underwhelming eco-initiative. On TV: every April, there’s a round of cheesy Earth Day specials featuring forgettable stars like Bob Saget performing amazing feats like installing toilet dams in their home bathrooms (that really happened a few years back.) On radio: Rush Limbaugh will likely repeat his tired tirade that the day reflects the true deep green plot against society, for April 22nd is also Lenin’s birthday – proof that environmentalism is a Communist plot! (Memo to Rush: April 22nd was chosen because it was the only spring Saturday Senator Gaylord Nelson had free in 1970, and no environmentalist I’ve ever met in 27 years of Earth Days ever knew when Lenin was born.

You’ll hear it in newspaper editorials and worldwide web pages; in store ads and nature center events; in zoos and museums; on T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Love it or hate it, you gotta admit it: Earth Day is here to stay.


And Earth Day will only grow in scope because environmental issues are not going to go away. Quite the contrary. With Pinatubo’s ash finally settling out, with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on the rise, the global warming debate will likely warm up quite dramatically in the next few years. The biodiversity conflict is only starting to gain any intensity at all – here’s one issue guaranteed to explode as soon as a large, charismatic mammal vanishes, like the black rhino or mountain gorilla, both threatened by Africa’s political instability. And we have never properly confronted the population issue – we likely will when the next famine arrives.

On top of this, the nascent Earth Day holiday will receive a huge jolt in the year 2000. New millennium. The thirtieth anniversary. That year’s Earth Day will be a humbling event.

Sure, the “make every day Earth Day” sentiment has its place. Mostly, it serves as a reminder that the values and ethics we hold important must be cultivated daily if they will thrive. And it should remind schools of the danger of pigeonholing the ecology unit into a one-day or one-week project. Certainly, state educational mandates for ecological/environmental understandings must never be met from a one-day event, and too many schools rely on this one day to complete its environmental education requirements.

Speaking of schools, Earth Day brings out the worst in too many teacher, and too many outside educational agencies, from corporations to utilities to non-profit. There are too many lame Earth Day poster contests, where kids are asked to draw a colorful poster with an Earth Day theme. So it’s education as fascist slogan: “Don’t Pollute!” “Love the Earth!” “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” Relax already. We still labor under the horribly misguided notion that if we command kids’ knees to jerk in the proper direction, their heads will follow. Wrong, so wrong. Sloganeering is not educational in any sense whatsoever, teaches no information at all, and only confirms our kids’ worst fears about the state of the Earth: The Earth must be dying because the posters say so. Environmental education must be uplifting, never down- grading, and never be reduced to a bumper-sticker answer to a lapel-pin question.

Still, wading through all the flotsam and jetsam floating around Earth Day, there is a nugget of truth, a seed of change that we must hold onto tightly.

We need holidays. Better yet, we need holidays with meaning. Christmas resonates with so many people – even people who are barely Christian the rest of the year – because it speaks to a set of values we all want so desperately to believe, like the triumph of Light over Dark. The Fourth of July is centered on freedom, independence, and the meaning of America. Martin Luther King Day, I hope, will evolve to take on transcendent relevance around issues of equality, nonviolence, change and the need for multicultural connections.

Sadly, Memorial Day, Labor Day and President’s Day have lost so much of their original meaning, and exist only as three-day holidays for overworking people. Our culture may be seeking new holidays with new meanings for a new millennium, and the beauty of Earth Day is that it emerges as the only secular holiday the entire world will celebrate simultaneously. Earth Day will become just that, the “Earth’s day,” a holiday where people pause to consider what it means to be a planetary citizen, and reflect on how well we shared limited resources with so many other species.

My eldest daughter will be a graduate of the Class of 2010. I’ll wager that during her school career, she’ll have a day off from school for Earth Day. Banks will close. Governments shut down. Stores hold Earth Day sales. Greenpeace’s executive director will write an op-ed piece in the New York Times begging us to “put the ‘Earth’ back in Earth Day.”

And I’ll be on some stage somewhere hosting an Earth Day festival, living every minute of it all.

So remember: every day is NOT Earth Day. Once a year is fine. Happy Earth Day.

At the time this was written, Mike Weilbacher was executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, sponsor of the Children’s Earth Day Forest, an event featuring an indoor life-size recreation of a Pennsylvania forest hand-crafted by local schoolchildren.