Published on Sustainable Cities

Earth Day: Bah Humbug

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LeafI have a love-hate relationship with Earth Day (April 22nd) . The concept and enthusiasm are great; but the faux commercial interests and token personal efforts make me uneasy. True, every little bit helps, but the ‘lots of little efforts’ are still way too little, and may actually distract us from the big changes needed. 

All good ideas usually come from several sources; and once they get going, often head off in several directions. Earth Day is no exception. The first Earth Day had two sources. San Francisco, again showing that cities lead, first observed Earth Day on March 21, 1970. The idea was to help celebrate the Equinox (first day of spring in northern hemisphere). A few weeks later, a US Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, called for an environmental teach-in arguing: 

“I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”

This is where I disagree. The facts are clear - and have been for a long time. The problem is we just don’t want to do the hard work that’s needed for any semblance of sustainability. We are very powerful procrastinators. So a few of us might as well turn off a light, or forgo the car while we wait to generate sufficient political and personal will to get on with the heavy lifting. But surely getting all these people thinking about, and working for, the environment can’t be a bad thing. Maybe it will help us act on the bigger stuff sooner.

On my first Earth Day I was full of vim of vigor, in a new job and excited to make a difference; it was a chilly April in 1987 as I retrieved abandoned shopping carts from a numbingly cold Speed River in Guelph, Canada. A year later we celebrated the City’s first anniversary of Blue Box recycling by opening a 27 hectare park. Preservation Park, as it was called, commemorated the forest area saved by one year of recycling and was twinned, on behalf of the children of Guelph, with the same area of Monteverde Rain Forest in Costa Rica. ‘Think globally; act locally,” we argued. Later that year, still on an environmental roll, my business partner and I opened For Earth’s Sake, North America’s first store to sell exclusively environmentally friendlier products.

This is my silver anniversary of Earth Days; thinking, cajoling, implementing and maybe even a bit of proselytizing on sustainable development. In those 25 years atmospheric CO2 levels have increased from 327 ppm to 395 ppm (assisted by my approximate 1,500,000 air miles), and total global solid waste has increased from about 500 million tonnes to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. We are not doing very well, at all.

But there’s one part of Earth Day that I love: hope. One of the best things about working at the World Bank is the people I get to work with. Lately – and the source of this particular note - my blogging colleagues Artessa, Julianne, Aafrin, Sintana, and Rana, who are all full of energy and hope, have been badgering me – the grumpy old man – to declare some Earth Day contribution. What am I going to offer for my environmental penance? Artessa’s giving up all car travel for a month, and Julianne’s dedicating her career to environmental management after growing up in that same rain forest in Costa Rica the City of Guelph helped protect 25 years ago. My colleagues are indeed a fun and fascinating group to work with, and make all those local actions and global thinking much more meaningful.

So what’s my Earth Day resolution? First, I want to visit Julianne’s Monteverde cloud forest within the next 10 years (I will offset the carbon emissions); second, I will not drive in a car with Artessa all month; and third, I will do what I can to make sure my potential grandchildren are born in a safer, fairer world (need another blog to explain that one). And finally, whether I leave the light on or not, I will not give up hope. There’s still time to get off the couch, roll up our sleeves, and really get on with the job at hand.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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