Earth Day 2021 was celebrated across the world this past Thursday, bringing people from all backgrounds together in an effort to further humanity's efforts of caring and advocating for our home. After doing research on the origins of Earth Day and other days like it last year, I learned that every Earth Day has a theme. These can be all sorts of things ranging from "Green Cities" rallying behind greenifying urban areas to "Protect Our Species" raising awareness for the rising level of extinctions that are happening around the globe. These themes help convey a unifying message spanning our actions around caring for the planet and can help people get behind a cause.
This unifying nature of the theme is a particularly human thing. Since the founding of Earth Day, it's been pretty clear that the goal of the day is to raise awareness on environmental issues and encourage others to care about our home. Yet every year we have a new theme focusing on some aspect of this broad goal. There is something inherently attractive to people being able to rally behind specific causes, which is why this kind of messaging is potent for us humans. Finding the right words to encourage participation in something is uniquely human.
Given the Earth Day theme is a way to rally people behind environmental causes, I want to take a look at them to see if they succeed in conveying their underlying goal. With that on the table, this year's theme is "Restore Our Earth."
Let's dive in!
Beyond the theme, there is usually a general goal behind it. As mentioned above, earlier themes like "Green Cities" give people an almost immediate sense for what the underlying meaning is. We associate "green" with nature and environmentalism, while "cities" gives us a picture of the kinds of urban areas we live nearest to. The underlying goal of the theme was in line with that mental image, backing programs for helping cities understand their carbon footprint and working toward ways to reduce it.
This year's theme is a bit different. According to EARTHDAY.ORG, the Earth Day 2021 theme is Restore Our Earth, which:
"focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. In this way, the theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change. It is up to each and every one of us to Restore Our Earth not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it. We all need a healthy Earth to support our jobs, livelihoods, health & survival, and happiness. A healthy planet is not an option — it is a necessity."
You might notice that the words in this theme are a bit more difficult to visualize, a bit of a contrast to something like "Green Cities" which immediately evokes some imagery.
"Restore" is vague, at best, though still an important concept. I think the room for interpretation in restoration is a good thing. A word like "return" could just as easily been used, but would evoke a sense of "going back" or "taking back," of which the latter could make sense, but the former is simply not possible. Where our planet is now is not where it was centuries ago, and a return to how it was is a feat not really within our power. Because of this restoration is a good, nuanced take on the action we can take, but it is a very broad word. It doesn't specify much.
"Our" is good choice, and it's been used plenty in the past. When advocating for something or encouraging others to join in, treating the movement like a team is key to making people feel involved. "The" could have just as easily been used, and make just as much sense, but by reminding people that this is our planet, our home, this resonates a lot more with us. We like taking care of our things and we like being on teams.
"Earth" has similar shortcomings as "restore" does. When we think of "Earth" I would suspect most of us immediately think of the iconic "Blue Marble" image. This is certainly evocative, but the Earth is an extremely vast concept. What of the Earth are we restoring?
To this degree, the theme feels more like a hearkening back to the origins of Earth Day. This place is our home, and we need take care of it holistically. In the sense of resonating with the message, this theme works, but in terms of sparking immediate, specific action, it's hard to understand.
Dissecting the Message
This lack of a call to action seems to have been considered because alongside the theme and message, there are 5 "pillars" that help define the actions this Earth Day would like to encompass. These include 3 programs and 2 initiatives:
- The Canopy Project
- Food & Environment
- The Great Global Cleanup
- Climate Literacy
- The Global Earth Challenge
Every bullet that starts with "the" in the list is a program. Typically, the Earth Day Network launches a program prior to Earth Day and they use the day to raise awareness for that program. Two of these are older programs that have been very well-received and the other just started last year. The Canopy Project and The Great Global Cleanup are the older ones and deal with tree planting and cleanup activities respectively. These programs do resonate with the theme in more of a "return" type of restoration, attempting to "put back" what humanity has taken and "taking back" what we've left behind.
The Global Earth Challenge is the new program (launched in 2020) and intends to be a big push for citizen science. The Earth Day Network published a mobile app that lets people take pictures of plastics in the environment so the data can be used by experts looking to solve plastic pollution issues. While there are plenty of ways people can participate in citizen science that we've discussed in an earlier post, this is geared highly toward data collection. This resonates with the innovation aspect of the underlying message, not directly in the data collection activity, but in the resulting solutions that may come of having more data about our planet's current state.
Food & Environment looks, at face value, to be an encouragement to change your diet to reduce your environmental footprint. This is a very individualistic approach to helping the planet and, in my opinion, is probably the weakest pillar for backing the message. Digging deeper into the topic, however, I found that underneath the message of "change your lifestyle" is a strong undercurrent of "know how the global food system works." I find this to be a much better read on the pillar, but it doesn't come across that way in all of the press material around it. Educating others about how the systematic process that enables a diet or lifestyle is problematic for the environment is a much better (and more truthful approach) to encouraging a lifestyle change than simply saying that the diet itself is a problem.
Literacy is Key
I wanted to go over the last pillar in its own section since it means a lot to me, and that's climate literacy. It should come as no surprise that I like this pillar given that this site is built around building environmental literacy, both as a project for myself and to the people who happen to read what I publish. I believe that this pillar could have stood on its own as an Earth Day theme. It actually was the Earth Day theme in 2017.
While it is extremely crucial that individual people do right by our home and treat it well, individual people are not the core problem facing our planet. As a species, we have invented truly amazing things that furthered our ability to thrive on the Earth, but at an immense cost to the health of our planet. We've talked about the abstractions that humanity has built around nature on this site before. They make us less literate about how our home works, but we trade convenience for that knowledge. There are other abstractions at play, however, that dilute individual impact across humanity.
Chief among those, in my opinion, are government and economy.
Now, this doesn't mean that these abstractions are inherently terrible and need dismantling. What this means is that individuals only hold so much sway over directing how our species moves. We choose to pool our lot with other humans, average out everyone's opinions, and weigh those opinions with money. Taking an individual approach to systemic change requires enough people changing lifestyles and routines such that money weighing opinions moves to the side with the individuals that changed their routines and lifestyles. And if humans can agree on anything, for the most part, change is harder than not changing. And there are a lot of people to convince that changing is the right thing to do.
This is where environmental and climate literacy can help. While changing anything is inherently harder than sticking with a routine or habit, there is usually a catalyst that can help make the change more favorable. By educating people about how the planet works and how the actions we take as a species impact our home, we encourage those people to seek lifestyles that are more environmentally sound. Beyond lifestyles, we encourage the next wave of humans seeking civic and business roles in society to care about environmental approaches to problems that humans face.
That last part is probably the most important aspect about literacy. It's easy to keep doing what makes people successful if they don't know the impact of their actions. Or if they do and have given into a sunk cost fallacy around their actions. By understanding how our current actions impact our home, we empower ourselves to find better ways. By recognizing that our current actions are unacceptable, as a society, we deem the continuation of those actions as a failure. We discourage actions that destroy our home while lifting those that care to roles that make a societal difference. If we keep pretending our abstractions have no effect on our planet, or that it was inevitable we destroy ourselves, we sign our own death certificate.
To that extent, literacy is the first step to helping our planet. We can only restore what we know we're breaking. By teaching each other, we pave a path to restoration we don't currently see.
What's in a Message
Messages are really important to humans. They help us understand what we're rallying behind and give us a common goal to work toward. I personally think that the theme is for this year's Earth Day was lacking in that regard. It's difficult to rally people behind something as broad as "Restore Our Earth," even if the underlying message is a good one. Holistically caring for our planet is the key to ensuring we have a home to live on, it just doesn't lend itself toward helping others understand how they can start helping.
In cases where theming and messaging is broad or vague, it helps to call out the actions people can take. I think the Earth Day committee likely recognized this, which is why we have so many "pillars" to accompany the theme. Each of these pillars attempts to outline actions that people can take to start making a difference today. That there are so many feels more like an admittance that the theme and message were maybe a bit too vague to inspire action on their own.
It's kind of weird diving into the words that we use to empower others into participating in acts of care. One would think we wouldn't need much in terms of incentive to remember our home is a living thing, too, and we're a member of that community. Attention to the degree we engage with the concept is a uniquely human thing. There are so many things that vie for our attention, that we even need to market how not to treat our planet poorly. It's this reality that makes things like the Earth Day theme an important part of getting people involved.
Most people don't like reading a bunch, to the point that I don't expect most people who read this post to make it to this last paragraph. Making sure the people you reach understand your goals and the actions they can take quickly and effectively take is an important part of advocacy. But hey, if you're here then you've got a bunch more nuance on the topic and hopefully walk away with a deeper understanding of not just this year's Earth Day theme, but how you can help empower others through communication as well!
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Earth Day Website: https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2021/
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.