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Re-framing Earth Day: From Corporate Polluters to Individual Consumers

March 29, 2010

This article is the first in a series that will look at environmental issues for the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.

This April the country will be celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day and already there is all kinds of online promotions from national groups about what this anniversary means and what we should all do to take care of the planet.

The Earth Day Network is coordinating celebrations and is lists on its action section for people to promote tough climate legislation, engage in environmental education, get fresh foods into our schools and of course to change our light bulbs for more efficient ones.

The Earth Day Action Center is promoting 5K runs for a greener planet, tree-planting kits for children and organic lawns. This sounds nice and all but this doesn’t have much to do with the focus and organizing that lead to the first Earth Day in 1970.

The organizing that came out of the 1960s was a result of both the popular organizing that was being done around other issues like civil rights, feminism and anti-war activities. There was also the groundbreaking work of people like Rachel Carson who’s research exposed and challenge the chemical and pesticide industries that were participating in the so-called “Green Revolution.”

Environmental writer and activist Vandana Shiva defines the “Green Revolution” as a mechanism for industrial nations to impose an agribusiness model on the rest of the world. This model included growing food for export, the use of pesticides & fossil fuel fertilizers, and promoting large-scale food production instead of localized production.

Origins of Earth Day

What Carson was advocating and what the first Earth Day organizers emphasized was the need to directly confront polluters and force the federal government to adopt some regulations. After all, it was the first Earth Day that forced the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course there was also the message of personal responsibility that came with the first Earth Day celebrations, but this was not the focus.

The advocates of capitalism were quite concerned about this light being shinned on the environmental damage they were doing so they began their own campaign to counter what environmentalists of the 1960 – 70s were advocating for.

The business community created the Keep America Beautiful Campaign, which could be considered one of the first corporate Greenwashing campaigns in the country. Some of the most notable companies were Coca Cola, the American Can Company and the National Association of Manufacturers. Their campaign was designed to take the focus off of corporate capitalism’s destructive environmental practices and get people to think about their own personal behavior.

The centerpiece of this campaign became moving attention away from industrial waste and pollution to personalized trash known as litter. The Keep America Campaign even came up with the label “litterbug,” a term which is used even today to describe individuals we all should look down upon. The campaign worked beautifully and by the second Earth Day celebration these corporate entities financed the creation of a powerful TV ad using a Native America actor Iron Eyes Cody. The Native man is seen at numerous places – in the woods, along the beach  – and everywhere he goes there is trash. Again the emphasis was on individual behavior and not so much on industry.

Green Consumption & Green Capitalism

This same emphasis is what we see today with individuals being encouraged to have a light carbon footprint on the planet. Of course the best way to achieve this is through the consumption of eco-friendly products. Buy a Prius and feel better about yourself. Drink a latte of fair trade coffee and you’ll sleep well. Use your own canvas grocery bag while you shop at Meijer and save the planet.

Not only is there little emphasis on corporate malfeasance, corporations and businesses are now seen as the heroes of environmental sustainability. In fact, corporations are now GREEN, so just shop with a conscience and all is well.

Pay attention over the next several weeks to the kinds of advertising you will see that accompanies this year’s Earth Day festivities. See how much corporations and businesses sponsor eco-events and watch to see how much emphasis is put on buying GREEN products.

However, don’t be seduced by the shop for the planet mantra. Investigate for yourself what the root causes are of environmental destruction in your community and in the world. Lets put the emphasis back on exposing and confronting the polluters, while we construct a world that is not determined by the profit motive, instead a world that is determined by the Seventh Generation principles.

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