5 Ways to Take Back Earth Day

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Jason Mecier artwork, on auction for Keep America Beautiful. Brought to you by Glad Bags.

“If I get one more email on the subject, I'm going to celebrate Earth Day by kicking Gaia in the nuts,” declared journalist Christopher Mims on Twitter yesterday. He expressed a sentiment shared by myself and many other journalists on environment-related beats. The onslaught of press releases begins around mid-March. Marketers reach deep into their creativity banks to commercialize the day that, in 1970, helped kick off the modern environmental movement.

Matthew Wheeland summarized his Earth Day angst in a story for

“Like a plague of cicadas (only more frequent and more devastating) this time of year brings us once again an inundation of marginally relevant, cynicism-inducing announcements tied to the one day of the year when, theoretically, a slightly larger slice of the American populace thinks about the state of the planet.”

Here's two quick examples: “Celebrate Earth Day with the Flavor and Philosophy of Crave Brothers 'Green' Cheese.” So starts one press release. Another entreats the reader to “consider purchasing necessary goods, gifts, books, etc. online rather than braving the mall.”

Wait a minute. Buying stuff is, to a large degree, what got us into this mess. With that in mind, I rounded up a few smart, gimmick-averse people I know and asked them: What could one do on Earth Day that would be a legitimately good use of his or her time? I'm talking about things that would, in a real sense, celebrate the earth. Or, better yet, fight for it.

So, herewith, five ideas for your Earth Day. In no particular order:

1: Take a stand. “I love how people talk about environmentalists like there are gazillions of them working hard when it's almost never more than a handful of people doing all the work,” says my friend Dale. Ouch. But he's right. He goes on: “Look into what battles local (or not local) environmental organizations are fighting. Find one thing you can get behind and then write an editorial, write a letter to a representative, write to an offending company or agency, hand out information etc. Do something!”

2: Wield a tool. What's your favorite local trail system? Contact the organization that manages it and ask about how you can help keep it awesome. Coloradoan Michael Rutter, who works for the Boulder County Parks and Open Space, tells me: “We are doing a volunteer trail day with the focus on closing and rehabilitating an old, eroded trail and constructing a new sustainable trail that will cause less erosion over the long haul. The rehab will consist of using native seed collected by volunteers and then spread by volunteers.”

3: Bring your own. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the largest percentage of our municipal solid waste stream is packaging and containers. We tossed 76 million tons of it in 2010, for example. Claire Jahns, project director at The Nature Conservancy, told me about an event today (Friday, April 20) in San Francisco, called the Lunchbox Project. The deal: Bring a reusable container to your favorite take-out spot and request your order be placed inside of it, instead of in single-use containers. Lunchbox Project is a power-in-numbers kind of event, but this is an example, obviously, of something that only works when it becomes a habit.

4: Measure your merit. Lise Waring, writer and project coordinator for Moutainfilm in Telluride, is a fan of quantifiable results. She suggests setting goals and then committing to them (which is a novel concept to moi, as I tend to be all talk, little action). This should come naturally to all the uber-athletes, or even weekend warriors, out there. Figure out how many miles you drive in a week. If you're an omnivore, track your meat consumption. Pay attention to your water meter. And then set a goal to reduce your fuel, meat, or water consumption by, say, 10 percent in the coming week or month. And then, of course, raise the bar. It's just like training your body.

5: Share a seat. I'm not going to cast any stones here, as I often find myself driving to a trail all by my lonesome. But as I discovered in writing this story about Transit & Trails, public transit isn't just for commuting to work. So celebrate Earth Day by figuring out how to get to your favorite trail without getting in your car. Look it up on Transit & Trails or Google Maps, which has an awesome public transit routing engine. If public transit isn't an option and you happen to be near San Francisco or Los Angeles, try Zimride, which T&T's Ryan Branciforte calls “the Facebook of ride sharing.” Or peruse your local Craigslist for good rideshare options. Or look for ride-boards at your local outdoor outfitter.

Have a good Earth Day. Try not to kick Gaia in the nuts.

–Mary Catherine O'Connor