Earth Day

Earth Day: Amidst the greenwashing, it's still a good thing

When corporations tout their greenness and journalists get beaten senseless by lame ideas.

I hope like me you're counting the hours till this Thursday, April 22, the 52nd observance of Earth Day.


An American invention largely credited to U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and student activist Denis Hayes, Earth Day's 1970 debut drew millions of people to rallies and events in big cities and small towns; grade schools, and college campuses.

This is not to be confused with Earth Hour, which was observed this year at 8:30 pm EDT on March 27, leaving the annual final score for the year: Earth = one hour; everything else = 8,759 hours.

Earth Day is also not to be confused with the United Nations' World Environment Day coming up on June 5, or its World Oceans Day, three days after that.

After its grand 1970 debut, Earth Day became a decidedly more mundane event until 1990. Several years of telegenic eco-disasters—the horrific chemical release in Bhopal, India; the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; the Exxon Valdez oil spill; and more – re-ignited public passions.

As a major event, Earth Day 1990 stands alone as a high-profile environmental newsmaker (except, of course, for the disasters). A two-hour primetime ABC special drew A-list talent: Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Kevin Costner, Rodney Dangerfield, Jane Fonda, Morgan Freeman, Dustin Hoffman, Magic Johnson, Jack Lemmon, Meryl Streep, Betty White, Robin Williams, and Barbra Streisand.

On the corporate side, greenwashing— green public relations efforts meant to mask polluting reality—started to increase in the 1980s and 1990s. Petrochemical giant Chevron notably put the con in consummate, dropping millions in greenwash print and video ads in its "People Do" campaign. In this TV classic, the kindly folk of Chevron keep desert critters from dying of thirst.

In a 1988 print ad, Chevron dropped an estimated six figures bragging about its efforts to save the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Unmentioned in the ad: Chevron was initially mandated to save the butterfly because its habitat was plowed under in part to build Chevron's massive El Segundo refinery complex.

Here in 2021, Greenwashing lives, and it's slicker than ever. America's biggest soda makers trotted out their biggest brands—Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper—to pledge their fealty to plastics recycling, despite decades' worth of opposition to bottle return legislation. Their ad ran during the Super Bowl of American advertising, which is, of course the Super Bowl.

Heartless journalists like me aren't blameless, either, as we annually turn our cyber-backs on literally hundreds of press releases, story pitches, and videos about how Snoopy (or was it Snoop Dogg?) is spending Earth Day.

Of course, not all of the news is cause to be cynical. President Biden has scheduled a virtual summit of world leaders (on Earth Day, of course!) to harden and accelerate commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions and affirm the reversal of the past four years of White House science denial.

Make no mistake: Earth Day, even with its shallowness and condescension, is a good thing—as are Earth Hour, World Environment Day, World Oceans Day, and more.

Hopefulness? By this time, I had hoped over 52 Earth Days that we had accomplished a little bit more.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo credit: Earth Day Gathering on April 24, 2017, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Governor Tom Wolf/flickr)

What Lego—yes, Lego—can teach us about avoiding energy project boondoggles

A new book looks at why big projects fail and finds that solar, wind and transmission lines are some of the best kinds of big projects, while nuclear power is among the worst.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Minnesota's carbon-free electricity bill: 8 questions, answered

A bill speeding through the Legislature would require utilities to quicken their transition to cleaner energy. But it includes exemptions and ways they could meet the standard without ditching fossil fuels altogether.

Auckland: New Zealand’s largest city sees wettest month in its history after ‘unparalleled deluge’

Auckland has recorded the wettest month in its history, New Zealand’s climate science body said after the city was pounded by record-breaking rainfall.

Wet winter won’t fix Colorado River woes

Although the moisture is welcome, some experts worry it could further delay the hard work that managers of the watershed must do to keep it healthy and make its service more inclusive as the climate grows hotter and more parched.

The threat of ocean acidification

This film explores the alarming effects of ocean acidification, drawing on the expertise of scientists and the first-hand experiences of a Native Alaskan community. The film also looks at what can be done to lessen the problem.

From our Newsroom
oil and gas wells pollution

What happens if the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the US goes bankrupt?

Diversified Energy’s liabilities exceed its assets, according to a new report, sparking concerns about whether taxpayers will wind up paying to plug its 70,000 wells.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich: A journey through science and politics

In his new book, the famous scientist reflects on an unparalleled career on our fascinating, ever-changing planet.

oil and gas california environmental justice

Will California’s new oil and gas laws protect people from toxic pollution?

California will soon have the largest oil drilling setbacks in the U.S. Experts say other states can learn from this move.

popular stories 2022

Our 5 most popular reads from 2022

A corpse, woodworking dangers, plastic titans ... revisit the stories that stuck with our readers this past year.

Pittsburgh environmental

What I learned reporting on environmental health in Pittsburgh in 2022

For a lot of people, 2022 felt like the first “normal” year since 2020. It didn’t for me.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.