Has Earth Day Been Hijacked?

It's a shame that Washington D.C.'s National Mall was trashed during the 2015 Global Citizen Earth Day Concert on Saturday. The lack of effective garbage collection planning provided more fuel for Earth Day skeptics, who argue that the event is, at best, merely window dressing that does little to effect long-lasting positive change, and at worst, provides an ideal platform for corporate greenwashing and dirty fuel propaganda.

A global annual event held every April 22, Earth Day is considered by many to mark the birth of the environmental movement in 1970. More than 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day in rallies and protests across the nation, which led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. In 1990, Earth Day went global, with some 200 million people across 141 countries taking part in a worldwide action that played an important role in the creation of the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

There continue to be numerous local and regional success stories tied to Earth Day initiatives, such as Earth Day Network's Green Cities Campaign, which helps communities around the world become more sustainable.

But Earth Day is also used as a greenwashing marketing opportunity and propaganda-launching platform for scores of corporations and special interest groups.

"Every year, environmentally destructive corporations get to buy themselves a green image they don't deserve and look green by association," said Briana Cotter of Rainforest Action Network. "It's like Walmart sponsoring labor day or Tiger Woods sponsoring a Valentine's Day float."

In 2010, one of Earth Day Canada's corporate sponsors was Royal Bank of Canada, a lead financial backer of the environmentally destructive oil sands operations in the Canadian boreal forest.

Another head-scratching example is Cargill, the agribusiness giant that has sponsored Earth Day for several years. The company has  launched employee volunteer initiatives around the world, from tree-planting in Romania to waste-separation in Argentina. While these local projects are certainly positive, they cannot reverse Cargill's ongoing destruction of Indonesian rainforests to support its palm oil operations.

In Cincinnati, corporations were even given the opportunity to purchase "ecological titles." Automakers Ford and Toyota paid $2,500 each to earn the title of "Habitat Defender." Coal giant Duke Energy spent $5,000 to become an "Ecosystem Guardian." For $10,000, Walmart was crowned "Global Conservationist."

But perhaps the most incredulous propaganda attempt was made not by a corporation, but by a state. In 2013, Utah's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining launched an Earth Day poster contest encouraging school kids to create and submit posters that addressed the theme, "Where would we be without oil, gas and mining?"

"The biggest problem with Earth Day is that it has become a ritual of sympathy for the idea of environmental sanity," wrote Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich of WorldChanging.com. "Small steps, we're told, ignoring the fact that most of the steps most frequently promoted (returning your bottles, bringing your own bag, turning off the water while you brush your teeth) are of such minor impact (compared to our ecological footprints) that they are essentially meaningless without larger, systemic action as well. The strategy of recycling as a gateway drug—get them hooked on it and we can move them on to harder stuff—has failed miserably. We can do better."

But perhaps the rise of greenwashing signals that positive change is afoot. After all, it seems that everyone wants to join the Earth Day bandwagon, even if the tune they're singing is decidedly not green.

"Greenwashing is not all bad," argued Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson in Beyond Earth Day, a book he co-wrote in 2002. "In fact, it's a generally positive development. It shows that even the bad guys want to look green to the public. It is a true public relations success, when even your worst opponents claim to share your environmental concerns."

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