Earth Day 2010: Celebration vs. Cynicism

Originally published on The Green Fork.

It's hard to believe it's been two years since we launched The Green Fork but there it is, 473 blog posts later. Two years ago today we set out to gild the lily that was the Eat Well Guide by not only steering you toward good food, but insisting upon its importance. That year, we kicked things off with 20 Ways to Green Your Fork. Last year, I hurriedly typed out an Earth Day post from the hallway of a hotel in San Jose at the annual W.K. Kellogg conference, gathering quotes from such sustainable food advocates as Michael Pollan, Joan Gussow and Anna Lappe, reporting that it had been a landmark year in the sustainable food movement, which it certainly had.

This year, I set out to throw together a mixed (good and bad) list of people and organizations to watch over the next year. I solicited my colleagues at Grace for some of their favorites, and I gathered their suggestions, but when I sat down to write the intro to the list, I couldn't get into it.

This year I wasn't riding quite as high as last, even though the White House gardeners built hoop houses this winter, and the USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program (also, Mario Batali's Earth Day menu looks amazing). Truth be told, I've long had reservations about Earth Day. I feel like it's been given the Christmas treatment and become completely commercialized. Privately, I've rolled my eyes at Earth Day, saying that it's too corporate, too precious, too. . .overdone.

(Yes, in launching The Green Fork on Earth Day, we did -- purposefully -- use Earth Day as a "news hook" to promote our new endeavor, but it's not like we were opening a gimmicky restaurant chain).

Anyway, I just couldn't get into the spirit. So I did some reading about it.

It's easy for people under 50 to imagine that first Earth Day, 40 years ago today, as a gathering of a bunch of idealistic hippies, but in many ways, things were just as serious then as they are today. Sure, most people didn't know how rapidly we were approaching peak oil or the climate tipping point, but they were living under the threat of nuclear war. There were virtually no environmental regulations, so factories were spewing pollutants willy-nilly into the air and water ways. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had raised major eyebrows over rampant pesticide use with its release in 1962, but the US wouldn't ban DDT until 1972. Rivers caught fire. Forget the fact that everyone was still driving gas-guzzling V-8s, there was still lead in gasoline.

My friend and colleague Regina Weiss tells me that back then, you couldn't see stars at night in New York City for all the smog (light pollution was a factor too, but that probably hasn't changed) but that she can, now, and she thinks about that when she's walking home at night and it gives her hope that things really are getting better, at least in fits and starts.

You rarely get this impression from movies about that time period -- at least, not that the environmental situation was so drastic -- but things were serious and it was clear there was change to be made. To be sure, there were people who'd know this for years and been suffering as modern Cassandras doing activism work on one issue or another, but that first Earth Day (credited to US Senator Gaylord Nelson, who originally called it the National Environment Teach-In) is said to have shown the activists that they all had something in common, thus galvanizing the modern environmental movement.

Anybody who does environmental activism these days can probably attest to a need for such a coming together today. Go ahead, shake your head at the egregious greenwashing you'll see this week. Give a side-eye glance at the government agencies you don't think are doing enough. But maybe we can still come together over Earth Day, the way we come together with our families, warts and all, during the holidays.

Maybe Earth Day was the catalyst for the movement, but more likely, it symbolized the critical mass that had been reached around some of these issues -- in any case, there's no doubt that policies started changing soon after. Nixon passed the Clean Air Act Extension, which gave more teeth to the original CAA, the EPA was formed and required to enforce it and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Gas lost its lead in the '80s. At some point, the stars came back out in New York.

I really wanted to end this with a mixed bag (The Good, the Bad and the Questionable, I was going to call it, and in addition to the good guys, I was going to list off the greenwashers and the junk scientists and the just plain bad ideas) of "ones to watch" for Earth Day, but I can't muster the cynicism.

Don't worry, it always comes back.

Thanks for reading The Green Fork these last two years, we hope you've enjoyed the ride even half as much as we have. In the spirit of coming together, a quick roundup of great efforts to get us out of this mess. I know I didn't even scratch the surface here so please, feel free to suggest a few of your own in the comments.

So Many People Doing Such Great Work

Monsanto may think that all women who live on farms are wives and mothers (not that there's anything wrong with that) but in fact, there are more women entering into farming than men, by a lot. Farmer Jane, a new book by Temra Costa, will tell us all about it. Look for our review soon.

Let's Move Who knew what the organic garden on the White House Lawn would grow into, and how quickly? Michelle Obama has claimed her issue, and it is childhood obesity.

Farm Corps This brilliant new program, just announced, will organize volunteers around the country to work in school food systems, helping staff source local food and helping teachers develop good food curricula.

La Via Campesina Anna Lappe gushed about them last year, and with good reason -- the international peasant movement has long fought against corporate control of the food supply and this week, organized over 100 actions around the world for the International Day of Peasant's Struggle.

FEEST I first heard about FEEST -- Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team -- at a W.K. Kellogg gathering last December (The Kellogg Foundation helps fund FEEST). The Seattle-based, youth-run program runs a weekly organic dinner and a monthly community potluck.

Friends of Family Farmers This Oregon-based group of sustainable agriculture advocates spent the fall and winter organizing community meetings around the state, gathering information for their Agricultural Reclamation Act, and also educating eaters -- how brilliant does "InFARMation (and Beer!) sound?

Cooking Up a Story These guys often let us cross-post their amazing videos. Their site is a great place to get inspired and witness some of the innovative farming methods people are coming up with.

INFORM A green nonprofit here in NYC that does interesting, snappy short videos - The Secret Life of Paper, The Secret Life of Cellphones - next up is The Secret Life of Beef. Meatless Monday's Chris Elam calls it "a clear, simple and accessible way to make sense of a complex problem, and how we're all part of the solution."

Meatless Monday With cities around the globe jumping on the Monday bandwagon much to the chagrin of the American Meat Institute and for some reason (do I smell industry dollars?) conservative talk show hosts, I'm sure we'll see more Monday action in the coming year.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment CCE is running a number of great campaigns at the moment, including stop power plants from sucking up aquatic life from rivers to cool their systems, effectively killing billions of fish every year.

Eat Well Guide We couldn't not promote Eat Well on Earth Day, could we? The team here has been putting together local food maps for events like South by Southwest and Anna Lappe's book tour, and as always, there's more on the way!