Does Earth Day matter as a serious day of environmental action? Yes, in as much as St. Patrick’s Day matters as a serious exploration of Irish culture. There’s nothing wrong with these days, but to consider either of them serious — or something that “matters” — is frankly delusional.

On St. Patrick’s Day, school children are shown where Ireland sits on a map (it’s up there in the far corner of Europe — just on the margins) and are presented with pre-sliced shamrock cookies. Older folks, depending on their station in life, either don plastic bowlers and guzzle cheap beer or wear a green tie and get on with their day. Regardless, no one is considering Yeats, Parnell, or the brutally beautiful game of hurling.  (Some may be considering another form of hurling.)

On Earth Day, our children are blessed if an enterprising teacher uses the occasion to discuss climate change (they’re less blessed to be confronted with a teacher who spreads denialist propaganda). Adults gorge themselves on something “green” — be it recycling or shopping at Whole Foods. The next day our children go back to their disposable lunch trays and the adults back to their GMC Yukons.

The insidious thing about both of these holidays is that they provide the delusion we’ve participated in something bigger. On St. Patrick’s Day we’re all “Irish for a day” — as if being Irish simply meant getting drunk and eating overcooked corn beef and cabbage. On Earth Day, we’ve done something for the environment — we’re green acne. When in reality we’re lucky if we’ve done something just slightly less injurious to the environment.

The truth is, we don’t need an Earth Day or an Earth Hour — we need an Earth Generation: 

  • We need a generation that doesn’t see natural landscapes and the services they provide as an inexhaustible dumping ground, but builds those services into the financial equations of development and wealth. 
  • We need a generation that looks for beauty in grasslands and mountains, not just on LCD screens and netbooks.

Unfortunately, we needed that generation to start running things about 10 years ago. Like so many times in the past, America is now acting when it is practically too late. The solutions to climate change and environmental degradation we must implement now will likely be twice as expensive, require twice the sacrifice and be half as effective as they might have been had we had that Earth Generation already in place.

That said, the great thing about generations is that they are constantly coming of age — so perhaps it’s not too late and perhaps Earth Day can have some real value this year. If you have kids, use the day as an excuse to get them outside and away from the television. Take that opportunity to introduce them to the natural world.  Use the day as an excuse to start forming the Earth Generation.

And if you can’t get them outside for real, at least take them to see the movie.

(Image: St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago. Credit: ChicagoGeek, used under a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Dave – I can’t agree more. Well said. This is about a larger behavioral change, not just a 24 hour time slot to do something semi-impactful.

  2. Dave,

    What a fantastic article. You’ve said what I’ve been thinking for quite some time.

  3. Great post. This is why my wife and I created Ethical Expeditions, to get students out into nature and to begin building the Earth Generation! I wish more schools focused as much attention on the environment as they do on AP Exams.

  4. Nice post Dave!

    I, along with numerous other Irish heritage-havers have called March 17th “amateur night,” in the sense that the real Irish don’t need a day to prove it.
    Similarly, the true environmentally aware/active don’t need a day to validate their actions.

    Sadly for Earth, though gladly for Ireland, after the day, folks go back to being their usual selves.

  5. Has anyone heard about “Hooked on Nature” ?? Richard Louv wrote the book LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS. Is now a loose coalition of groups accross the US. The goal is to help parents (who may not have had nature in their own chilhoods) connect with what is out there… check it out. It is in a formative stage and anyone who wants help doing things is invited…

  6. Honestly, some companies didnt even try for earth day, much less any other day. Xbox 360, in ‘honor’ of earth day, set it so if you left your game sysems on for SIX hours unplayed, THEN it would shut off. >.<

  7. You are absolutely right, we need to start educating the younger generations on climate change and its severity. I’m 13 years old and 1/2 of the people in my class do not even know what global warming is. But, on the other hand we also need to understand that changes no matter how small can positively impact Earth

  8. Good article! keep up the good work and thanks for sharing .

  9. Very interesting discussion. I am an aerospace engineer working on fuel combustion. So far fuel efficiency with no consideration to the environmental impact of the fuel used to be the prime concern in our research. The department of environmental engineering used to do separate research to control pollution. Last year we took an initiative to do combined research with environmental engineering department to do research on increasing fuel efficiency having environmental impact as a consideration.

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