Earth Day Attack
This story first appeared in The Coast on April 16, 2009:
Earth Day started with good intentions, but now, it takes our eye off the ball.
By Chris Benjamin
Earth Day is next Wednesday. Check your local listings to find out how you can celebrate the bountiful beauty of Mother Earth, the sacredness of all her life and living systems, right here in Halifax. Then we can go back to beating the shit out of her on Thursday.
Earth Day has always reminded me of an abused woman’s birthday. Hubby (or our culture of exploitative control freakism) gives his knuckles a rest, takes her (or the planet) to dinner at a fancy restaurant (or a litter pickup at a local elementary school), and graciously toasts her splendour (or makes a speech about aggressive greenhouse gas emission targets). Maybe when they get home he lovingly seduces her (or we watch ourselves on the news). Next day he realizes she forgot to feed the cat (or has some uranium left in her ground), and BAM! She’s back in traction.
So what was the point of the fancy dinner/litter pickup? Answer: to make those of us living in this culture of exploitative control freakism feel good about ourselves. OK, we’re not perfect, but things are on track. We’re raising awareness here. We’re teaching the children well and letting them lead the way. Once we get a few more nuclear power plants up and running, and improve the efficiency of our technology a bit, maybe find another planet out there somewhere to move to, everything will be fine. And we’ll treat that other planet better, because with a fresh start, we can change.
BAM! Back in traction.
As an environmentalist, it’s hard for me to bash Earth Day like this. So many good, brilliant people get excited about it, and invest a lot of energy organizing events for it. And the events are fine—great, even. This year there will be a walk for water in Point Pleasant Park to raise money for Nova Scotia Nature Trust. Staff from Aveda salons will volunteer their personal time and abundant energy to raise money for land and water protection. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But as a writer, I have to be honest and say that the current concept of Earth Day is dishonest. Its origins are admirable. It started in 1970 as a massive environmental education forum in the States, with full recognition of the enormous complexity and scale of the challenge of moving toward a healthy, sustainable environment. Its organizer, US senator Gaylord Nelson, was radically pushing for an activist movement, and in doing so rallied diverse groups working on what had until then seemed like disparate issues, from saving the whales to ending nuclear proliferation to smarter waste disposal.
That unity was inspiring, and catalyzed numerous American regulations and institutions designed to protect the environment. Whether these regulations and institutions are effective or not is another difficult discussion, but to me they are far preferable to the millions of one-off events now being held each year in 170 countries, because they at least attempt to have a lasting, positive impact. Earth Day events pretend we can change if we spend a couple hours a year picking up trash that shouldn’t be there in the first place, that will return sure as the sun the very next day anyway.
Sadly, a little litter is among the least of our problems. Here are but a few of the abuses we have recently hurled at the same Mother Earth we celebrate on April 22:
Last November, the Irving-owned vessel Shovel Master, which was being towed from Saint John in a storm, sank in choppy waters off Yarmouth, with its 70,000 litres of diesel. After it settled underwater for five months an Environment Canada committee got around to ordering Irving to keep an eye on it. BAM! Traction.
Suncor, soon to be merged with former crown corporation Petro Canada, recently received a tap on the wrist for its ongoing bitch-slap of the Athabasca River in Alberta. Specifically the fine it received was for 90 counts of dumping under-treated chemical wastewater, then lying about it to regulators. Those 90 counts are but a toxic drop in what Andrew Nikiforuk calls “raised toxic lakes,” 60 square kilometres of waste taking a long toxic leak over Northern Alberta’s once pretty face. Traction.
Also: 90 percent of large predator fish are gone. And: the oceans are filling up with massive dead-zones where nothing can live, and islands made of plastic refuse. Oh right: climate change.
Earth Day, National Aboriginal Day, Family Day, International Women’s Day, all are well-intentioned efforts to educate and, thus, to change. All come and go, once a year, without changing the abuser, the culture of exploitative control freakism. The culture of us.