A Word About Earth Day

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It’s an odd time to care about our collective future on this planet.

Canada is immersed in an election campaign, and the major parties seem to agree that the environment is not worth discussing. And while some of us choose to celebrate Earth Day, the e-waves are filled with the standard skeptics, as well as a new breed of clear-headed “realists” that find fault with any sort of positive Earth Day message.

Take this article in today’s Globe and Mail, by Andrew Miall, which disparages the efforts of Earth Day Canada (EDC), a 20-year-old national charity that tries to get ordinary people involved in small measures to help the environment. The author certainly has good intentions, but he still labels EDC as ineffectual and fluffy.

“Instead of focusing on feel-good half-measures,” writes Miall, “Earth Day could initiate a useful discussion about the most significant crisis we’re facing: the impending energy crisis.” A fair point, and there’s no sense denying the reality of the situation. It is as bad as we’re all worried about: there is an energy crisis upon us, there is an ecological crisis of epic, “sixth-extinction” proportions – caused by humans – and there is climate change, still gradually unfurling like some slow-moving catastrophe.

But did anyone roll their eyes as they read this? If so, that’s just an illustration of the environmentalist’s paradox: If you talk honestly about the harsh reality of our current (and worsening) environmental predicament, then you’re nothing but a fear-mongering alarmist, or a radical crank. But if you offer people simple solutions (so-called “baby steps”) then the realists will swoop in to say it’s not going to amount to anything. It’s literally a no-win situation.

Miall even goes on to take EDC to task for its reliance on corporate sponsorship. Shouldn’t charity organizations, which could not exist without funding (and certainly can’t depend on governmental funding), try to get large corporations involved with environmental issues? Shouldn’t they do all they can to engage society’s power brokers? It seems the most clear-headed course of action for environmental groups; much better than shouting from the margins as the world chugs along.

Ultimately, two highly incompatible facts complicate the environmental message: First, it really is as bad as many scientists suggest; we are on a collision course with ecological collapse. That’s why so many people donate their lives to these issues.

Secondly, self-interest and, in many cases, a sense of entitlement, usually take precedence over any consideration for Earth’s limits. Self-interest will cause otherwise upstanding individuals to roll their eyes, stop listening, or actively resist “inconvenient” truths. To them, you’re either a “Chicken Little” shouting that the sky is falling or a corporate shill promoting small measures that are easily accepted, but won’t amount to much. It’s the catch-22 of environmentalism.

It takes a strategic mix of positivity and realism to make any progress on environmental issues. In the face of criticism from both sides, let’s hope that long-standing organizations such as Earth Day Canada can stick around for at least another 20 years. We really, really need it.



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