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Earth Day, then and now

*This story was updated April 22, 10:47 a.m.

When U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson launched the first Earth Day in 1970, could he have imagined that 40 years later it would be so widely recognized? Commemorated by Disney t-shirts, blockbuster DVD releases, and Facebook applications?

Probably not. Back then, the issue was pollution, and the goal was to educate and organize people in a grassroots lobby to stop oil spills, pesticide use and haphazard toxic dumping. Today, the issues are energy, sustainable consumption, and the new green economy, writes Vicki Glaser in this month's special issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record.

"The biggest change that defines the evolution of Earth Day is the shift from the collective to the individual. The focus used to be events and public demonstrations intended to raise political awareness of environmental issues and stimulate legislation action. Today, it is more personal. What can each individual do to save energy, reduce water consumption, minimize pollution, help other and improve the world?" writes Glaser.

Some wonder if this isn't a perverse turn for the worse. If you live in Ontario, Quebec or B.C., notes columnist Tony Keller, you can celebrate this year's Earth Day by buying a hybrid luxury SUV. . . you'll get a $2,000 subsidy from the government.

Rex Weyler, a founding member of Greenpeace recalled the actions he'd been a part of over the last four decades -- camp-outs, sit-ins and highway blockades. That was the the 'anger' stage, said Weyler, who likens our "cultural inertia" to going through Kübler-Ross' five stages of death. Now we've moved on to stage three: bargaining.

"If we call ourselves 'green' and 'sustainable' can we keep selling stuff?" he wrote in an email to The Tyee. "As a culture, we still resist the lessons of ecology. We are attempting to continue with our unsustainable habits and tack on "green" as a marketing slogan for more products."

It's easy to be cynical about Earth Day, especially when considering one's own personal actions against those concerted efforts of government and industry to extract oil and gas no matter what the ecological cost. In Canada, especially, surmises this Montreal Gazette article, there had better be strong individual actions -- because we have no climate leadership to speak of.

Dave Vasey, one of the 120 people who shut down Parliament in a tar sands protest last December, told The Toronto Star that environmental groups' increasing tendency to work with government on policy issues has created a "top-heavy" movement.

"Protests are effective in showing that there is passion. . . Policymakers need to know that we're not going to go away quietly," he told the Star.

Indeed, for proof of the power of one person's protest, look no further than Alexandra Morton, who kicks off her Great Migration tomorrow in Sointula. Or, consider the power of friendly competition -- today Vancouver took one step closer to its 'greenest city' goal by finally joining cities like Portland and Toronto in introducing kitchen waste pick-up.

If you do want to give a nod to Earth Day, there are dozens of activities happening around the province. Online, one could spend hours sorting through top 10 Earth Day action lists and suggestions on how to live a greener life. Or perhaps, suggests one contributor to this video, the best way to celebrate Earth is to "get the f*#ck away from your computer, and go outside."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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