The Marketing of Earth Day and the Tyranny of Simple Solutions

For the past few days, I’ve attended the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Boise, Idaho. At a workshop this morning on greenwashing, panelist Cayte Bosler, Climate Fellow at the Solutions Journalism Network, greeted us with “Happy Earth Day! The ultimate greenwashing holiday!”  

I don’t know why I feel compelled to say something about Earth Day; I’ve said it a dozen vaguely similar ways in a dozen previous Earth Day articles. What good is one more?

That’s a fair question. 

The obvious answer is that it doesn’t matter. The better question is, since it doesn’t matter–if it’s just greenwash–why do it? 

Earth Day: Green or Greenwash

I understand Cayte’s point of view. Earth Day was sincere enough when it started back in 1970. To push back a little on her comment this morning, there remains a faint whiff of authenticity in the spirit of Earth Day.

However, the torrent of interview offers, press releases, and potential feel-good stories that landed in my inbox in the run-up to Earth Day reveals what Earth Day has primarily become–a marketing opportunity.    

Of course, we should all consider and reevaluate our relationship with the planet and the complex balance of its life-giving systems and resources. Doing so one day a year doesn’t cut it. Nor will vague and ineffectual attempts to assuage our guilt over the environmental damage we inflict. 

We are our own worst enemies when we think that forgoing the plastic straw, driving an EV, or recycling can save us from ourselves. Not that these aren’t part of the solution, but it’s working around the edges, mollifying the masses without touching the center, where wealth and power naturally consolidate. 

I suggest we are sold a naive, oversimplified, and often meaningless message at best and outright lies at worst. 

No Silver Bullets

Electric vehicles, for example, are arguably held as “solutions” to global warming. 

Elon Musk claims that, through Tesla, he is doing more than anyone else to address climate change. And I just threw up a little in my mouth. 

Every car that rolls off Mr. Musk’s assembly line contains steel, rubber, plastic, and mined rare earth metals. Seldom–as in never–is there discussion about the upstream and downstream impacts of getting a single Tesla (or any EV) on the road.

My point is that it’s complicated. There are no easy answers. We can’t buy our way out of the mess we’re making in the skies, on the land, and in the oceans and waterways.

Consumers and Market Assumptions

All that said, in a market-driven, hyper-consumerist economy, we can tell the market what we want and what we don’t. Sometimes, the tail wags the dog. EVs are gaining traction because consumers (aka “people”) buy them (albeit with government-derived incentives). 

Markets have a critical role in driving progressive change. At the same time, we must question the viability of the market economy and the assumptions it forces upon us. There is the presumption of endless growth, the sustainability of developed world consumption levels, and the ability of planetary systems to absorb a wasteful linear economy, to name a few. 

Breaking Free

Systemic change may start from within the system that needs changing, but it eventually must break free from the constraints of the system being changed. It’s like fixing the jet engine while the plane is in flight. 

It can be done. We can align our economic, social, and individual values with the natural world from which it all derives. Even the wealthiest and most powerful among us return to the Earth.

These are frightening, exciting times. Meeting the challenges of our age requires a collective effort, individual transformation, and–dare I say it–a sacrifice that we have yet to commit fully. Or maybe that’s just me. I am, after all, my own worst enemy.

In any case, here is one more Earth Day article for the books. Until next year, Happy (belated) Earth Day. 

Photo by Shazia Mirza on Unsplash

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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