Is Earth Day greenwashed and obsolete? Some climate experts argue its core message has been diluted

Critics of the holiday say Earth Day teaches us to "recycle harder" instead of tackling fossil fuel emissions

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 22, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

Greenwashing (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Greenwashing (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Thinking about the planet for a day is a bit bizarre," says Prof. Martin Siegert, a glaciology professor at the University of Exeter and former co-director of Imperial College London's Grantham Institute for Climate Change. His sentiments are shared by many other climate experts when it comes to Earth Day, a holiday that is observed every April 22nd.

One might expect scientists who study the environment to be widely enthusiastic about an international event inaugurated in 1970 that has served as a PSA regarding human impacts on the planet. Today, Earth Day is celebrated by 1 billion people in more than 193 countries, with the official 2024 theme this year being "Planet vs. Plastics."

"I can't really see how turning the lights off tall buildings for an hour does much at all."

Yet some climate experts have dismissed the holiday, including Siegert and others who characterized Earth Day as being as little more than performative virtue signaling.

Not surprisingly, when Salon spoke to Kathleen Rogers — who is president of the holiday's founding organization EARTHDAY.ORG (previously Earth Day Network) and was previously an environmental attorney and advocate — she had a very different perspective.

"To be clear, we don't embrace celebrations or parties ever," Rogers said. "That's just not what we do. If we do any events at all, they're fundraisers, but everything we do is geared towards repairing the damage done [to the planet]."

Rogers discussed traveling to classrooms in 105 countries, both on Earth Day and under the Earth Day banner during the rest of the year, and her tone burst with enthusiasm as she recalled teaching children about environmental awareness. Rogers described Earth Day as being about encouraging activism, "taking action and volunteerism and signing petitions and doing all the other things,  such as the ordinary things that I do in my community. I do cleanups all the time."

She also described participating in reforestation efforts and educating the public about lesser-known environmental hazards like plastic pollution.

"Our job will never be finished because our mission is to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide," Rogers said. "That's an incredibly purposeful mission statement that's focused on movement building, and so we have a staff that spends year round doing two things: bringing people into the movement, and keeping them there."

In terms of "substantive programs," Rogers listed initiatives including climate education, halting plastic pollution and reforestation. In contrast, Siegert is more skeptical that Earth Day achieves anything substantive.

"I don't think it really accomplishes much," Siegert said. "But the day itself has rather changed its meaning since the first in 1970, which was to place the world in the context of space — and now it's very much (to many) on climate and environmental damage. Perhaps more time is needed, but I can't really see how turning the lights off tall buildings for an hour does much at all."

Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Salon "There have been times when Earth Day has made a difference, but not so much recently."

"The state of the world in politics continues to go sharply downhill," Trenberth said. "Nothing seems to be going the right way. How does one get attention to long-term issues like climate change, biodiversity and plastics in this framework?"

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"It reminds me how far we have to go and in some ways, how little progress we've made."

Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, said that Earth Day can be either substantive or performative "depending on how one treats it. I do know that it focuses attention on issues like climate change, and I can speak to this personally. I’ve had more opportunities to do more climate-themed media interviews on Earth Day and during Earth Week than at other times. So I do think it helps get the word out."

Similarly, when Mann was asked if Earth Day encourages the practice of greenwashing — that is, businesses paying lip service to environmental causes while still behaving unsustainably — he said that "bad actors will always seek to hijack any occasion for their own agenda. That shouldn’t deter us in our efforts to communicate the risks, challenges and opportunities."

Other expressed feeling extra climate anxiety around Earth Day.

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"It reminds me how far we have to go and in some ways, how little progress we've made," Dr. Peter Kalmus told Salon. Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist who has previously emphasized that he speaks for himself, not for NASA or the federal government. He agreed with Mann that Earth Day provides environmental activists with "a sort of nucleation site around which they can coalesce. At its best it can be an entry event for people wanting to get off the sidelines and involved in the climate movement."

Yet Kalmus also said that Earth Day's messaging is outdated, "basically still stuck at the 'recycle harder' level, when where we need to be is at the 'sue and disrupt the fossil fuel industry out of existence and put the executives, lobbyists and politicians who have intentionally spread misinformation in prison, because billions of human lives and life on Earth is at risk' level."

Kalmus said greenwashing, though not directly caused by Earth Day, is an unavoidable byproduct of this being a holiday that exists in a capitalist system.

"Capitalism has largely co-opted Earth Day for its own purpose, to make profit by selling products," said Kalmus. "This is just what capitalism does."

Tracing the process from the days of colonialism to our current climate breakdown, Kalmus said that the main obstacle to progress in addressing climate change is the "system for wealth concentration, and that wealth co-opts political systems, media and information systems, the UN climate talks, and also Earth Day. The scrappy grassroots activists are our only hope. Earth Day is useful precisely to the extent that it helps them."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Climate Change Earth Day Global Warming Greenwashing Plastic Pollution Reporting Virtue Signaling