Did you celebrate Earth Day last Friday? Me neither, and I don’t blame you a bit for letting it slip by. Earth Day has quickly become our most depressing holiday. A lot of people find Christmas depressing, especially if they spend it alone. Memorial Day is a real bummer, if you lost friends or loved ones in a war. But compared to Earth Day these quaint celebrations seem naively joyous.
Even if you think of Christmas as the mythical origin of the Christian tradition of clerical sex abuse, and Memorial Day as a glorification of technological warfare, which I do, the blackness of Earth Day overshadows them all. Earth Day is more like Good Friday, except that there’s no Easter to follow it up. For people who believe in science and technology, democracy and civilization, Earth Day is a day to observe the crucifixion of their savior, in real time. Nobody wants to see that.
Earth Day didn’t start out as a depressing holiday. When we first established Earth Day, we thought that a day to celebrate the environment would help us re-prioritize our values and change our culture to meet the challenges of the looming crisis. Those were hope-filled times. We were all really high on LSD, and we thought we could do anything if we just celebrated it enough.
Forty years later, we can’t say “We didn’t know.” Today, the truth stares us in the face. We know we’re killing the planet. We know that we’re destabilizing the future, and we know that it’s killing us, but we don’t know how to stop. Forty years ago we had some ideas about how we could apply the brakes and turn things around, perhaps even before it was too late. Today we’re out of ideas. Nothing we’ve tried works. We’ve won a few battles, but we’re still losing the war, and losing it faster than ever. A recent survey estimates that we’ve lost half of the Earth’s biodiversity since the first Earth Day.
Not only have we failed to stop the environmental destruction, we’ve failed to slow its acceleration. We have failed, as a culture, to meet our most pressing existential threat. Knowing is not enough. Understanding does not help, and the more we know, the more we realize that it’s worse that we feared, and harder to change than we ever imagined. Against the hard truth of the environmental crisis, the myths of our culture unravel like a cheap sweater.
Today we can look back on the whole history of civilization since the agricultural revolution and project forward our global environmental impacts. From this perspective, we can see, pretty clearly, I’m afraid, that the costs of civilization far outweigh the benefits. What’s worse, the benefits of civilization lie mostly in the past, while the costs of civilization loom large over our future. After centuries of secular skeptical scientific inquiry and bold technological innovation, the only thing we know for sure is that everything we know about how to live on planet Earth is wrong.
How do you turn that into a holiday … that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself? Some people still do the Earth Day festivals, but, you know, any excuse for a party. So go ahead, enjoy the music, eat the organic veggie hippie food, shop for fair-trade, creatively recycled, handicrafts and try not to think about it too much, because, believe me, you don’t want to know.
We don’t need another depressing holiday to remind us of how we’ve failed as a culture. We need to pick a day to take back our lives from the economic machine that consumes us all, and the environment around us. We need a global Day Off, just to remember what life is all about, and if people like having a Day Off, just to enjoy life, maybe we can stretch it to a week.