Earth Day 2013: What's in danger is Earth Day, not just Earth

Earth Day 2013 poll finds Americans far less eco-conscious than they were in 1971, a year after Earth Day was founded. Only 39 percent now say it's 'very important' to restore the environment.

Courtesy of NASA/Reuters
An image of the Earth, based on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a sensor aboard the Terra Satellite, composed July 2005. Earth day is celebrated Monday around the world.

Is Earth Day dead?

Maybe not, but if we’ve read the tree rings correctly, it may be dying. Which is why 2013 is the year we don’t need to save the Earth – we need to save Earth Day.

Consider this: A new Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds Americans are less concerned about the environment now than when Earth Day began. A lot less.

In 1971, the year after Earth Day was founded, 63 percent of Americans said it was “very important” to work to restore and enhance the national environment, according to an Opinion Research Corp. poll for President Richard Nixon. This year, only 39 percent of respondents said it was very important, according to a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll.

Other categories show similar disinterestedness. In 1971, 25 percent said working to restore the environment is “fairly important,” and 8 percent said it was “not too important.” In 2013, 41 percent said it was fairly important, and 16 percent said it was not too important.

And a 2012 Harris Interactive poll found a similar falloff in eco-consciousness just over the past three or four years, with fewer and fewer Americans describing themselves as “environmentally conscious.”

What with all the other concerns competing for our attention – terrorism, a limping economy, celebrities behaving badly – we shouldn’t be surprised that the Earth has orbited off our list of priorities.

That’s why we’re not surprised to read about fracking in California (Yes, you read that right: The land of redwood-hugging, granola-crunching, eat local-pioneering, plastic bag-banning Earth hippies is considering the controversial technique known as fracking.) and coal mining in the Mountain West.

And that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that among developed nations, the US is dead last in energy productivity, the level of economic output achieved from energy consumed.

According to a Politico opinion piece by Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia and National Grid president Tom King, 57 percent of the “energy flowing into our economy is simply wasted,” costing US businesses and households $130 billion per year.

Heck, even China ranks better than us.

No, Earth Day isn’t dead. But it needs intervention.

Is it time to make it a priority again – both in government and public opinion? If so, several things would need to happen.

For starters, lawmakers must advance initiatives that support not just the environment and clean energy, but also economic growth. As Senator Warner wrote for Politico, “It’s critical that we recognize stewardship and growth not as mutually exclusive, but as complementary goals.”

Warner also suggests rethinking regulations for our energy market in order to incentivize energy efficiency, as well as adopting a “Race to the Top”-style framework to challenge state and local governments to boost energy productivity.

And if, 50 years after Earth Day began, we want to see more Americans say they care about the environment than do now, it would be key to instill such an ethic in the nation's youths, ensuring that the generations who would be most affected by today’s environmental policy tomorrow are fully invested in Earth Day – and their Earth.

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