What’s wrong with Earth Day

Source: http://bit.ly/1CZikcf

—Photograph by Charles W. Harrity/AP

—Photograph by Charles W. Harrity/AP

I care deeply about our environment, but I’ve never been an enormous fan of Earth Day, which turns 45 next week. I’ve designed and supported environmental behavior change efforts from Beijing to Baltimore and beyond, and Earth Day never added significantly to the outcomes I sought. I also didn’t expect it to. The day was a reminder of the progress the environmental movement had made, but it also shined a bright light on the long road ahead with informational and attitudinal barriers still to address.

I know others will disagree about the role of Earth Day. But if you believe, like I do, that addressing the remarkable challenges of climate change and other environmental ailments requires a long-term approach to affect the existing social system that allows the problem to continue – social will, individual behaviors, and political will, for example – then you can easily argue that our contemporary Earth Day is just that, a single day. And to be clear, I’m not diminishing the accomplishments that have been made, including the viability of renewables and engaged corporate leadership.

In his book, Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Dr. Alan Andreasen reminds us that social change requires action, and that the burden of social change cannot and should not be placed solely on downstream actors. Change requires communication that influences policy or structural changes, too. The 1970 inaugural Earth Day helped do this. Leveraging the model of “teach-ins” from the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, it generated more than twelve thousand events and more than thirty-five thousand speakers and helped place environmental issues solidly on the political agenda, which helped establish the political will to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as well as create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a 2013 article in The New Yorker. I seriously wonder whether, in today’s era of protests and marches about nearly every cause under the sun, Earth Day this year will have nearly as profound an impact as it did 45 years ago.

When I talk to others about social change in the context of environmental issues, I’m always eager to share EPA’s ENERGY STAR® story. It’s a simple and compelling one:

  • raise awareness nationally about the relationship of everyday energy use and the combustion and use of fossil fuels with a simple narrative (“The average home pollutes more than the average car.” Remember that one?),
  • create a value proposition and incentives for manufacturers to make products that use less energy (upstream actors),
  • define a simple action for consumers to take (“Look for the ENERGY STAR label – the easiest way to save money and protect the environment”), and
  • reinforce and reward the behaviors of upstream and downstream participants.

I’ve oversimplified it, but I hope the simplicity and thoughtfulness of the program’s market transformation design is evident. Eventually companies affirmatively desired to attach the ENERGY STAR label to their products.

Even with ENERGY STAR’s 25-year history of good storytelling, actionable messaging, and behavior reinforcement, and the numerous other environmental programs, today’s environment and climate concerns are not perfectly established. For example, consider the very real debate over the increased use of domestically produced natural gas, which has environmental advantages over the combustion of oil and coal, versus the legitimate concerns raised related to environmental and seismic impacts from increased domestic production. (More shocking are recent dust-ups related to some states prohibiting the use of the term “climate change” by state agencies!) Rarely do these issues top the agenda of concerns that result in legislative victories. According to recent studies, those concerns are at the bottom of the agenda. A 2014 Gallup study – which included testing “climate change” for the first time in its annual March Environment survey – showed this:

“Climate change and the quality of the environment rank near the bottom of a list of concerns for Americans, who are instead far more worried about more basic economic issues such as the economy, federal spending, and the affordability of healthcare. Concerns about the environment typically rank low among all Americans, but the current level of worry is even lower than in the past.”

In a new movement aimed at changing global attitudes toward climate change, the Vatican announced plans this week to convene a major climate change-themed summit on April 28, 2015. It’s called: “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” According to a Vatican website, one goal of the event is to “highlight the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people – especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.” This event precedes the Pope’s expected summer release of his encyclical on the environment. An encyclical is the “highest form of papal writing” that informs and guides the Church’s teachings. With an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this an interesting and contemporary example of an institution hoping to change the way a body of people – over which it has authority – addresses and responds to climate change. Interesting, too, is the explicit connection they make to basic economic issues that do dominate political agendas. The uber popularity and influence of Pope Francis makes this an issue worth paying attention to.

Despite survey findings and current debates, I’m optimistic about our ability as social marketers to influence and inform political and individual decisions, transform markets (upstream and midstream) to share the burden of change, and ultimately deliver environmental outcomes that meet the economic and social needs of our citizens and our planet. So, enjoy and celebrate Earth Day next week, as you should. And take the opportunity to recall the transformative impact it had 45 years ago as you consider new ways to advance a healthier environment.