Does Earth Day Matter? Taking Stock of Where We Are in 2011

By Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., CO2 IMPACT

Well, here we are again, Earth Day 2011.  Some of the readers of this weekly series on Climate Capitalism are well aware of my general dissatisfaction with the role that events like Earth Hour and even actually have in moving the needle on massive issues like climate change.

Most people assume that I share the same opinion about Earth Day.  When asked about it recently, I had a hard time immediately explaining why I have some affinity for Earth Day and not for other events put on by world-class organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and

After some reflection I realized that some of my apparent hypocrisy on this relates to a sentimental value I have for Earth Day.  The first Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970, the same year I was born-yes if you are counting that means I will be 41 this year, just like Earth Day.  That means that for more than 40 years, activists, students, concerned citizens and politicians have used Earth Day as an opportunity to discuss environmental issues around the globe.  Earth Day has become an institution focused on protecting Mother Earth.

Another reason I am fond of Earth Day is that historically it has had a strong political orientation to it. In fact, one of the “Fathers of Earth Day,” Gaylord Nelson, was a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin.  The kernel of the idea for Earth Day came when Senator Nelson encouraged President Kennedy to take a five-day, 11 state “conservation tour” to raise political and public awareness for environmental protection.  You may ask why do I care about the political origins of Earth Day?  The reason is that getting political action on environmental issues, particularly climate change, is something I consider to be one of the key ways we can move the needle on climate change.

So the question becomes, beyond being a highly recognized day on the calendar each year to discuss the environment, has Earth Day accomplished anything meaningful?

The 1990 Earth Day event was a trigger for bringing recycling into the mainstream.  Earth Day throughout the years has of course been the impetus for the education of millions of youth, raising their awareness of our impacts on Earth’s ecosystems.

But yet, where are we really with regards to human’s appreciation about our impacts on the planet, and our resolve to reduce those impacts?  Let’s consider progress on corporate and public policy.

Actually on the company side, I think many of the large and small companies around the globe are in fact doing a much better job than they were, say at the turn of the century and much better than they were doing when Earth Day was started.  CSR, sustainability and ecological footprint were not even in our lexicon back then.  Nearly 70% of all Global Fortune 500 companies are producing annual CSR reports.

Since 2003, the number of companies voluntarily reporting their carbon footprint through the Carbon Disclosure Project has risen from 235 to 3,050 companies in 2010.

Don’t get me wrong, we have a long way to go to have the world’s economic engines, private companies, embrace what Ray Anderson of Interface did more than a decade ago-“to de well by doing good.”  We still have our examples of companies acting irresponsibly such as BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf and the poor safety record at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

On the political side we have had our ups and downs too.  The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, put binding emissions reductions targets on more than 30 industrialized countries and resulted in the creation of a regulated carbon market worth more than $140 billion annually.  Several countries and regions have passed legislation to phase out some or all fossil fuel over the next decade.   For example,  Germany and Canada’s Province of Ontario are phasing out coal-fired power plants.  Sweden has a stated goal to be fossil-fuel free by 2020 and while they may not make there are some Scandinavian towns already on their way, like Kristianstad, Sweden and Samsø, Denmark’s renewable energy island.

Despite some real progress on the political side around the globe, we do not have to look beyond America’s borders for lots of failure. The U.S. has yet to commit to a cap and trade program or even to put a price on carbon.  President Obama, who came into office with lots of promises regarding carbon reductions and clean energy, has largely failed to live up to expectations.  Of course I am not sure any human on this planet could actually pass much meaningful legislation on any remotely controversial topic such as climate change and the environment through the partisanship in today’s congress.

So, are we better off on the environmental front than we were when I was born?  As far as public awareness and meaningful action by many companies and governments, I’d say yes.  However, most metrics of our net environmental impact such as carbon footprint, ecological footprint, loss of biodiversity and rates of deforestation would all suggest that we are winning some battles but losing the war.

Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.Twitter: boydcohen

One response

  1. On June 22, 1969, a portion of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The late1960s were turbulent times; 1969 alone witnessed Woodstock, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the Mi Lai massacre. The fire on the Cuyahoga River was emblematic of human-caused environmental troubles. This event and others lit a fire under the Congress and the President. The Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental landmarks all happened under the ‘liberal’ Nixon Administration.

    And, on April 22, 1970 the United States observed its first Earth Day. On that day most of the observers had taken to heart Paul R. Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” which warned, “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” In those days, members of the environmental movement also predicted air pollution would cause another ice age through global cooling. (As Danish physicist, Neils Bohr supposedly quipped, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”)

    Ehrlich and other doomsayers embraced Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who argued that the rapidly growing human population would quickly outstrip its food supply. Like Malthus, they were convinced that the world’s exponential population growth would outstrip the planet’s ability to cope. We needed to curb our population NOW or the population of humankind would collapse like the locust after they descend and voraciously remove every bit of vegetation in an area.
    Yet, since that first Earth Day, the earth has not collapsed, and in many ways, conditions for mankind and the earth have vastly improved. Indeed the world’s population has almost doubled, yet we have not removed every whit of resource and become poorer, sicker, and hungrier. Nor did we simply maintain the status quo. No, we find that since 1970 we are doing better. Everyone is three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more calories per day, the world’s forests cover 99% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled. The list of accomplishments goes on.

    Four decades ago, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. While this bit of information strikes one as astonishing in its own right, it had happened at least nine times before: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. It has not happened since. Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Cuyahoga one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers, and portions of the river that were devoid of life in 1969 now support dozens of species. Consider the advance of other waterways: the Rhine, the Thames, and New York Harbor; they have greater amounts of dissolved oxygen and thus a greater abundance of life.

    Life on earth is far from perfect, yet the human species has made strides towards a healthy planet. The world is cleaner, more livable for people and animals, safer, and more sustainable than it has ever been.

    I will let political satirist P.J. O’Rourke have the last word. “Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’”

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