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Earth Day: Lost in a forest of green?

How Earth Day and Earth Hour stay relevant amid expanding branches of environmentalism

Apr 22, 2009


They have always existed, since cavemen drew on walls and the Greeks worshipped a powerful goddess named Gaia, mother of earth.

Symbols, from primitive paintings and life-bearing deities to the Christian cross, pack a powerful punch on the human psyche, creating an instant and deep connection.

If environmentalism is the new religion then it is two annual celebrations – Earth Day and Earth Hour – that have become the mainstream symbols of the green creed.

And humans are hard-wired to connect, says Marcel Danesi, an anthropology professor with the University of Toronto.

"It is the mythic symbolism of the earth," says Danesi. "The earth provides us with sustenance, like a mother. So the earth can be personified in our minds."

But in a modern world, cluttered with competing causes, peppered with green-washing advertisements, a question bears scrutiny: Can these environmental icons maintain their relevance?

"They do matter," says Franz Hartmann, spokesperson for the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "They present a moment in time when we can all do something together. We feel like we are part of a collective group of people across the planet."

Stephen Hazell is the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. He believes the symbolism of these events is best used to remind the public about the relationship between energy consumption and global warming.

The downside, Hazell says, pointing to Earth Hour, is that "you don't want to give the impression that turning off your lights for an hour or two is going to make a big difference."

"We need to use these more symbolic events to try and get more fundamental change in behaviour," he says. "Hopefully, if people turn off their lights for an hour, maybe that will lead them to question why they have to have their lights on all the rest of the time."

Jed Goldberg, the president of Earth Day Canada, says the mainstream understanding of the environment has evolved tremendously since Earth Day's original purpose.

"There is now a very clear understanding in the average Canadian's eyes that we are very compromised with respect to the environment," Goldberg says. "The disconnect comes when people need to then translate that into some kind of tangible action and that is where Earth Day can be instrumental."

Earth Day's niche, he says, is helping the community find practical ways to save energy.

"It is not about trying to influence politicians. That is not the kind of work we do – others do that very well, that is not us. We are about on the ground action in neighbourhoods and communities across the country."

In the 39 years since it began, Earth Day has evolved into a brand that is both ubiquitous and non-controversial. The homogenized milk of environmental events, it is not unusual for governments to align green announcements with the date – the Ontario environment ministry, for example, recently declared that it will begin enforcing its new ban on cosmetic pesticides on Earth Day.

"That is not a huge surprise," observes Goldberg. "The flip side to that, is there is also the opportunity to be co-opting Earth Day.

"Because of the interest and focus on the environment, there is an opportunity for green washing and for shameless marketing, for people to exploit the goodwill that has been created around Earth Day."

In the U.S., Earth Day's name is used as a marketing promotion, with numerous companies using the occasion to sell green-washing products, he says.

In Canada, Earth Day's name was trademarked years ago. As a result, the company has taken legal action numerous times.

Goldberg pointed to a Zellers' apology, which ran under an advertisement last November. He says non-disclosure agreements prevent him from commenting further.

The notice read: "Zellers inadvertently used the term `Every day is Earth Day' without the permission of the trademark owner of Earth Day ... Zellers wishes to acknowledge this mistake and apologize to Earth Day Canada Inc. for any confusion which may have resulted from this error."

A Zellers spokesperson says the company would not comment on the apology.

No matter how powerful their brands may be, and how enticing those symbols are to business seeking a green edge, Earth Day and Earth Hour need to connect online to reach more followers, says social media consultant Mark Evans.

In a fast-shifting culture, online campaigns have a growing influence on policy and politics. Sites like Facebook and Twitter take events like these and quickly connect them to a broad audience, Evans says.

"All you have to do is capture the imagination of a group of key influencers in the social media landscape and messages like Earth Hour can really explode in a bigger way than they ever could in a traditional method."

Earth Hour's numerous websites on Facebook have hundreds of thousands of members. Earth Day's sites have thousands. Evans says from a social media perspective, Earth Day's power is on the wane.

"I think Earth Day has what we would call charity fatigue, the novelty has worn off, because we all know that it is a good thing to take care of the earth," Evans says.

"I think Earth Hour still resonates with people because it is a pretty simple thing to do – turn off your lights for one hour... If you want to ride the Earth Hour bandwagon for a little longer before it gets too tiresome, you want to think about new and different ways to get the message out, to reach new audiences."

As published at: http://www.thestar.com/special/article/622015

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