Eco Etiquette: Forget Earth Day?

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This week, I had originally planned to write a piece about Earth Day optimism. The column was supposed to highlight the most exciting and uplifting environmental news I could find (Evangelicals are becoming tree huggers! More celebrities are going vegan!), all in the hopes of inspiring you, my dear Earth Day enthusiasts, to keep fighting the good fight.

But you know what? I really don't feel like it.

I never expected being green to be easy, of course, but the news as of late has been so abysmal that even eternal eco-optimists like myself want to stick their head in the sand.

US greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise once again. One in 88 American children now has autism (with pollution being named a possible cause). Tornado megastorms are ripping across the Midwest faster than you can ask, Is this related to climate change? (Scientists are hesitating on this one, but interestingly, the American public isn't.)

Then, there are the recent setbacks; the ones that make it seem like no matter how many of us cry out for change, we'll never be able to rise above political infighting and the powers that be (Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Chem).

Senate Republicans blocked the bill to eliminate tax breaks for rich oil companies before it could even come to an honest vote. Despite intense consumer demand, the FDA chose not to ban endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA from food packaging. A million Americans signed a petition supporting the labeling of GMOs and were promptly ignored (FDA, again).

So forgive me if I don't feel like having butterflies painted on my daughter's face at our local Earth Day celebration this weekend.

I know, I know: The founding of Earth Day in 1970 was instrumental in opening people's eyes to the environmental devastation we had inflicted. It was the impetus to pivotal pollution-fighting legislation like the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. More than a billion people worldwide are expected to participate in Earth Day this year, which is remarkable, if by sheer number alone.

But here's the reality: After planting a tree at a local event or recycling their old electronics, the majority of people (companies, our government) will go back to business as usual. They'll make choices that are beneficial to the environment when it's convenient or profitable; they'll look the other way when it's not.

Why? Because we haven't set the stakes high enough. In fact, we've missed the mark entirely. Save the planet, goes that familiar refrain each Earth Day.

But it isn't the planet that's at stake this Earth Day; it's us.

I say it's high time we reposition the environmental argument. Our planet is indeed in peril, yes, but only the planet as we know it, in its beautiful, lush, human life–supporting state. Global temperatures are rising, polar ice caps are melting, and wildlife extinction is happening on a scale unprecedented in the earth's history.

But the fact remains that regardless of what we do -- burn through every last bit of fossil fuel, fill the oceans with trash, raze what little rainforest we have left -- the earth will endure. The human race, however, may not.

Our planet has sustained cataclysmic events before, after all, like the asteroid collision 65 million years ago that likely wiped out the dinosaurs and up to 70 percent of all living plants and animals.

It's also made it through times as hot as anthropogenic global warming is likely to cause, like during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum some 56 million years ago. (Though there were evidently an obscene amount of insects. Something for the few humans who are left to endure daily and nightly 100-plus degree temperatures to look forward to.)

If more people took a moment to absorb the brutal reality that this is, in fact, a fight to save our life on earth as we know it, including the lives -- nay, the mere existence -- of our children and grandchildren, maybe we would stop bickering over regulations for power plants.

It sounds scary, but that's because it is scary. Nice as the sentiment of Earth Day may be, people rarely make sweeping change in the name of altruism. How much more effective would it be if we changed the name of Earth Day to Save the Human Race Day?