The greatest irony of Earth Day is that it has become a yearly event that is almost ignored by environmentalists and celebrated mostly by politicians and businesses with green products or PR campaigns. The reason for this is probably best understood by florists, card shops, and restaurants on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day: it is a day for symbolic gestures, taken most advantage of by those who aren’t doing enough the rest of the year but know they should be.
Boycotting the empty gestures is certainly understandable for those who “make every day Earth Day.” A quick visit to a half dozen or so websites of environmental groups this morning found almost no mention whatsoever of Earth Day, but there was a consistent focus on the one-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill. That’s probably for the best, because if people who normally wouldn’t visit these sites are inspired to do so today, they are better off being met with substance than feel-good window dressing.
On the other hand, I’m not sure any of our politicians deserve to get a pass for running silent on environmental symbolism today. Just because it’s okay that Greenpeace chooses not to acknowledge Earth Day on its homepage today doesn’t make it okay for President Obama, Harry Reid, and John Boehner to do the same (they did, by the way—no mention of it whatsoever as of 9:30 am this morning, even on Obama’s now famous Facebook page).
Here’s why: for a lot of Americans, Earth Day may be the one day of the year when they decide to go hunting for information about what kind of progress we have made as a nation on environmental and energy issues, and elected officials ought to be accountable at exactly that moment for their positions on those issues. The White House gets this concept for taxes: Tax Day was this past Monday, and whitehouse.gov still has the new “taxpayer receipt” feature splashed across its main page so people can see where their money went while the question is fresh in their mind. Voters deserve a similar accounting for the environment on the day when they are most likely to be looking for it.
I understand the cynicism about what Earth Day has become, but the problem with that cynicism is one that has all-too-often plagued the environmental movement: it allows condescending moralism to undermine efforts for political accountability. If environmentalists, clean energy advocates, and climate hawks of different feathers want voters to judge the president and members of Congress for their record on these issues, like their failure to pass energy and climate legislation, then they should take advantage of the visibility of Earth Day to demand an accounting from our officials. If there is any time when you can get the attention of the media and voters for five minutes to remind them that there is a lot of work left to do, today is the day.