Friday, April 29, 2016

Earth Day at 46, for cryin’ out loud

Note: I included this piece in the Free Fredonia Times, issue #42, the Earth Day issue. Click here to see a PDF (on Google Drive). 

 The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. But let me take you back to Earth Day of 1971 and the launch of one of the most powerfully effective TV ads of all time. Senior citizen readers I’m sure will remember it. Probably inspired by that first Earth Day, the “Crying Indian” ad was a public service message sponsored by the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful.  The Indian paddles his birchbark canoe to shore, where someone in a passing car throws out a bag of garbage which breaks open at his feet. Camera pans to a close-up of his face and the tear trickling down his cheek. The narrator intones, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” 

Shown repeatedly in the 1970s, the ad was most successful in its hidden, unannounced purpose: to stop a then-growing effort to promote reuse and recycling of drink containers (and thus reduce roadside litter) by requiring deposits on the containers. The ad was funded by the Advertising Council of America and backed by beer bottlers, can companies, and soft-drink makers. Shifting the responsibility for litter to “people” protected the profits of the corporations making throw-away containers.

I think the Crying Indian probably did persuade some to stop throwing their trash out the car window. I’d like to show it to some of the people who travel 267 and 222. You can see the ad yourself at Being intentionally deceptive “greenwashing,” pretending to sell us something environmentally beneficial but actually something else, makes the ad typical of a great deal of today’s advertising. But isn’t all today’s advertising, or all successful advertising, fundamentally (also often creatively, beautifully, and/or hilariously) deceptive? And about protecting the corporate profits, what’s wrong with that? It’s a legal requirement of corporations. And it’s our culture, our way of life. Any proposal to protect “the environment” (aka our planetary life-support system) that might “hurt the economy” (that is, reduce profits or slow economic growth) gets shot down. Getting back to the ad and the containers, does recycling or not-recycling matter that much if we are committed in either case to eternal over-consumption, consuming ever more and more? 

Getting back to Earth Day – The “official” Earth Day web­site,, says “We are now entering the 46th year of a movement that gave voice to an emerging consciousness, channeling human energy toward environmental issues.” The original focus was on littering, along with air and water pollution. Today it’s clear that awareness of the serious global harming done by burning fossil fuels has (at last) entered the global consciousness. On this specifically April 22 Earth Day, leaders of over 150 nations are at the UN to sign on to the first international agreement that might actually reduce global emissions of that super-pollution, and so avert the environmental catastrophe that scientists are warning us is on the way unless we change our ways. 

A recent report in the highly respected journal Nature outlines the impact of climate change over the next 10,000 years: “The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”

Will we – can we – change our ways? I hope so. I like that “window of opportunity.” But it’s forecast to be brief. And the changes needed are fundamental. Beware of deceptive advertising, proposals that either lie to us or deflect our efforts away from what is really needed. The current official Earth Day website lists as one of its major goals “to plant 7.8 billion trees.” Would that be good? Of course. But if the greatest threat to our Earth’s habitability is the burning of fossil fuels, planting trees does not cure the disease or solve the problem, it only lessens the symptoms. Do I smell some way that someone’s profits are going to be enhanced by the planting of 7.8 billion trees? What’s really needed?

Stop burning fossil fuels.

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