On April 22 — the official, nationally designated Earth Day — my email box blows up. Not just from the usual business of managing our local Earth Day festival, but from the mass of e-newsletters and Facebook posts calling attention to the day. They come from every corner of society. A statewide religious consortium. Elected officials. A local attorney’s office. Some are fluff, others are sincere calls for action, and others call into question what it’s all for.
I ask this question of myself, and of the team that works for months to pull together Santa Barbara’s Earth Day Festival. The community effort that goes into coordinating our local event — one of the largest, most consistently held environmental gatherings in the U.S. — takes more than 2,000 volunteer hours over the course of months. For dozens of people who feel the importance of carrying this legacy, it means significant personal sacrifice. For the 35,000 people who will attend, it means giving up a day (or two) to gather in Alameda Park.
According to our region’s environmental pioneers, Santa Barbara’s first Earth Day in 1970 was a small but heartfelt affair. Organized as one of the first public activities of the Community Environmental Council, it was part of a nationwide day of “Environmental Teach-Ins,” modeled after the anti-war effort.
That first gathering promoted solutions that we take utterly for granted today. The Environmental Protection Agency did not exist. The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act did not exist. Recycling was not part of our daily public infrastructure. Even the bakery at the first Santa Barbara festival that offered whole wheat bread — symbolizing the beginnings of a health food movement — was considered counter-culture.
Now, a generation or two later, Santa Barbara’s Earth Day Festival has changed significantly, as has the landscape around us. Some say we are now in the midst of an extinction crisis — what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the Sixth Extinction. We have crossed the threshold of acceptable levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Population, climate change and resource limits are at the root of major systemic stress. It’s been a long time since a scientific study has been released saying that things are looking great.
We have work to do, and part of that work is to support each other and celebrate small victories. (As poet Wendell Berry says: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.) It may be that one of the most important tools we need now is to build internal strength and resilience. The counter balance to the difficult realities we face is not conjuring up false optimism, but knowing how to stay centered and clear in intention in the face of droughts and polar vortexes and resource conflicts.
This is what I think Earth Day gatherings can offer. Those new to environmentalism are recognizing the magnitude of the situation and need support and perspective. Those who have been at it for awhile need fresh ideas and renewal. We band with others to share stories, to bear witness to the changes around us, and to say “not on my watch.” We look to each other for inspiration, and to remind each other that solutions we can’t even begin to imagine now can emerge with surprising speed.
And here is where I am going to get metaphysical for a moment. The biggest problems of our time aren’t climate change and human-induced collapse of systems. Those are the symptoms of a world out of balance, of people disconnected from nature and each other.
This is why I like to suggest that people take two Earth Days — one to get out into nature, preferably alone or with someone you can be quiet with, leaving behind the twittery technology. And then, on your second Earth Day, gather. Dance with friends, share a meal with your community. Learn how to grow your own vegetables and save the seeds. Dig out your bike with its splashy tires and bring it to the festival for a tune up. Think about plastic and how insane it is that we would turn our remaining oil into bottles and bags that we use for five minutes before throwing them away. That is the disconnected world we are going to start stepping away from.
Yes, there will be hypocrisy. Someone somewhere will drive to Earth Day in a gas guzzler. There will be political posturing. Some company will try to sell you a product you don’t want; some organization will espouse a doctrine you find too heavy-handed, or not enough. But that’s part of the growth of the movement, isn’t it? Not the hypocrisy or posturing or greenwashing, but the fact that with 7.2 billion people now on the planet, we are negotiating our own definitions of what it means to be "environmentalists," or of this Earth.