This Earth Day, let's focus on people

Environmentalists go on about the loss of endangered species and degraded coral reefs. But we barely mention people –  nature's biggest beneficiaries. This Earth Day, let’s put human well-being at the center of things, and make explicit the value of nature to our everyday lives.

The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken, AP Photo
Brandi Gardner, center, and Danielle Rhodes have a picnic with their boys at the Sevierville City Park in Sevierville, Tenn., on March 29. Op-ed contributor M. Sanjayan is hosting Picnic for the Planet, a global Earth Day event that aims to have people recognize the link between nature and the food that sustains humans.

After more than four decades of celebrating Earth Day, you’d think something would have stuck. But young Americans are less interested than ever in the environment and taking action to save nature, according to a new comprehensive study of high school seniors and college freshmen.

And it’s not for lack of trying by environmentalists. We’ve deployed every hot new marketing tactic around to reach the Millennial Generation – eco-fashion shows, “Rock the Green” concerts, Earth Hour, and green labeling on everything from drinks to jeans. What’s left to talk about?

People, for starters.

Environmentalists don’t talk about people much. We go on about the loss of endangered species, degraded coral reefs, dwindling numbers of sharks, and logged-out ancient forests. But we barely mention people – the biggest beneficiaries of nature. And that’s why most people tune us out.

Earth Day marks its 43rd year on April 22. Forty-three years is nothing. The Earth has survived for 4.5 billion years. It’s handled countless asteroids, oxidizing bacteria, and climate-changing volcanoes. Trust me, the Earth is going to be fine.

The real question is: are we?

Our species has been around for about 100,000 years. To put that number in perspective, consider this: If the Earth were as old as the average American, people have been around for about as long as a single night.

Yet the modern environmental movement ignores human well-being. Environmentalists don’t focus on the billions of people whose standard of living is unimaginably low and for whom the sustainable use of nature could provide a lasting way out of poverty. We don’t talk much about how nature is an integral part of all of our lives, including that of business and youth.

Instead, our rhetoric is relentlessly about “less.” Limit your footprint. Reduce your consumption. Why are we surprised that, for the majority of American youth, protecting nature seems a joyless exercise in deprivation?

That’s no way to create social change.

This Earth Day, let’s put human well-being at the center of the environmental movement, and make explicit the value of nature to our everyday lives. Even better, let’s shift the movement’s priorities to focus on three groups who have been long neglected and yet hold the key to the future success of the environmental movement:

The rural poor, for whom nature provides the ultimate social net and provides many of basic needs; the business community, for whom sustainability is becoming synonymous with availability of natural resources, often the greatest uncertainty to growth; and youth, who –  empowered with technology – can make saving nature a social enterprise about protecting others.

Take the Condor Biosphere Reserve outside of Quito, Ecuador. Conservationists are keen to protect it for its Andean bear and condor populations – wild animals I personally cherish watching. Yet the approach that’s clicked with Ecuador’s human population hasn’t been conservation in the traditional, fence-people-out sense. Instead, companies pay rural communities in the reserve to protect water that flows from it. In return, these indigenous communities safeguard the watershed (and the reserve) better than any park ranger could alone.

This model has such resonance that it’s now being applied in dozens of cities and watersheds around the world.

So does this mean we should ditch the name Earth Day in favor of Human Day? I’ll leave that to the branding experts.

The real point is that by making environmentalism about what people really care about – our well-being, our way of life, our survival – we not only secure the environmental movement’s relevancy, but also ensure that our fragile species is nutured by a healthy and relatively resilient planet. Youth will respond to that message. So might the rest of the world.

M. Sanjayan is the lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy and host of Picnic for the Planet, the Earth Day event that links food to nature through picnics around the world.

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