In 1970, there were two separate Earth Day events hosted in the United States to raise awareness about environmental activism. The second, on 22 April, brought students from two thousand universities and ten thousand secondary and primary schools outside to celebrate through peaceful demonstrations. Fifth Avenue in New York was shut down for a crowd of over 1 million people and was given nationwide coverage by the country’s major news organisations. Over the next forty years, Earth Day has grown into a worldwide celebration and has helped bring environmentalism to the forefront of public awareness.
The Earth Day of the 21st century, however, is quite different from that of the 1970s. In the beginning, it was a distinctly grassroots movement. Today, nearly every major brand and corporation in the country goes green, in something now known as ‘greenwashing.’ Capitalising on our nation’s consumerist tendencies, corporations use a day for heightened environmental awareness to promote their eco-friendly products.
In 2010, the New York Times wrote:
While the momentum for the first Earth Day came from the grass roots, many corporations say that it is often the business community that now leads the way in environmental innovation—and they want to get their customers interested. In an era when the population is more divided on the importance of environmental issues than it was four decades ago, the April event offers a rare window, they say, when customers are game to learn about the environmentally friendly changes the companies have made.
If you believe everything marketing agencies tell you, even ExxonMobil and Shell have gone green!
Even more concerning than Earth Day becoming an eco-friendly marketing day is that, for the average Joe, it’s a superficial excuse to care about the environment for just one day a year and then not feel guilty for the other 364 days. It’s so easy to get caught up in symbolism and grand gestures and forget about the real reasons for doing something.
This year, let’s make Earth Day not the be-all, end-all, but rather the starting point for a fundamental change in our attitudes and actions. Because in the end, we need to care 365 days a year.
A 2012 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) showed that the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half of its coral in the preceding 27 years alone. At the time, Research Fellow Dr. Peter Doherty said that ‘if the trend continued, coral cover could halve again by 2022.’
Three weeks ago, a report by the UN and World Meteorological Organisation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the reef could face permanent damage within 25 years due to climate change.
If the prediction of both studies prove accurate, in just eight years, the Great Barrier Reef will be only 25% the size it was in 1985. By 2039, that small remaining part of the reef could be damaged beyond repair.
In 2009, the Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Authority’s Outlook Report found the effects of climate change, such as increased incidence of severe weather, ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, and rising sea levels, to be one of the greatest long-term threats to the reef.
AIMS’ 2012 study demonstrated the damage to the reef caused by humans, finding that 48% came from climate change-induced storms and cyclones, 42% from a massive increase in reef-damaging crown-of-thorns starfish due to nitrogen discharge from fertilisers, and 10% from bleaching caused by ocean warming.
This year, IPCC’s report by 309 authors and editors from 70 countries reiterated the severity and urgency of such issues.
Despite constant reminders from the scientific community, not much seems to change in the intervening years between studies. While the Australian and Queensland governments have implemented and are planning to implement many protective measures, the actions of everyday citizens do not reflect the dire situation faced by the reef.
The survival of the Great Barrier Reef is not Queensland’s responsibility alone, nor is it Australia’s. At 348,000 square kilometres and home to around 3,000 coral reefs, more than 1,500 species of fish, and more than 30 species of marine mammals, the reef is an incredible treasure people the world over should be fighting for. Nothing can prepare one for its true majesty, and for humans to destroy it both through inaction and careless action would be a tragedy.
Yet the Australian government’s Reef Water Protection Plan states that ‘an estimated 5.7 million tonnes of suspended sediment are washed into the Great Barrier Reef annually as a result of human activity,’ namely agriculture. Commercial, recreational, and charter fishing are all allowed on the reef. Ten major commercial fisheries, including net, trawl, line, and pot fisheries, operate on the reef.
Every action has consequences. Decisions that may seem small, such as what you eat and where it comes from, whether you drive or take public transport, or whether you get a paper coffee cup or use a reusable mug, have downstream effects that can and will dictate the future of our planet’s incredible wonders.
The Great Barrier Reef is incredible beyond imagination. Give yourself and everyone else a chance to see it.
Twitter continues to divide activists both in terms of the platform’s efficacy and its viability in the realm of change. Three weeks ago it proved itself by turns divisive and risky, a platform almost guaranteed to elicit miscommunication and misunderstanding in its overall attempts to eradicate those things, when dealing with racial awareness in popular culture. It took one hashtag to split whoever was paying attention into two opposing groups that, evidently, didn’t have very many productive things to say to one another.
Are things different within the realm of environmental activism, or do the same Twitter caveats apply?
Bill Powell attempted to address this issue in Newsweek‘s 4 April cover story, ‘A Social Media Storm Descends on Taiji, the Japanese Town at the Center of a Dolphin Slaughter‘, though with a lead (if not written by Powell himself then authored by Newsweek staff) that reads ‘Social media has made all politics local, as activists from around the world pummel a Japanese fishing village for slaughtering dolphins,’ it remains unclear whether Powell is attempting to defend what he perceives is a defenceless village from Western, tech-savvy bullies or whether he is trying to justify the drive hunts on cultural/traditional grounds. What is apparent, however, is a lack of in-depth exploration of all sides of a very loaded topic, one that has since outgrown itself as solely an environmental issue.
Ever since the release of Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 documentary The Cove, more and more people have become aware of the dolphin drive hunt that takes place every year from September to April in Taiji. Since its spotlight on a worldwide scale, the ethics of this practice have been aggressively called into question. Accusations of severe animal cruelty have of course been at the forefront, ranging from the hunt’s methods—which many regard as wholly inhumane—to the hunt’s necessity altogether. Proponents of the hunt, the most vocal being Taiji mayor Kazutaka Sangen, claim that the practice has been a cultural tradition since the 1600s as well as a prime source of economy for the whaling town. Detractors argue the validity of cultural tradition as a justification, adamant that whale and dolphin hunting is an outdated practice that has no place in the 21st century. Furthermore, throw in the issue of the Taiji drive hunts being sources for the public display industry to obtain animals, and that is even more fuel for the fire. And that is what this issue has become: a fire that catches everyone’s attention, elicits reaction from all sides, yet has somehow proven itself largely untouchable and, perhaps as a result, currently inextinguishable.
If the dolphin drive hunt in itself is as downright abominable as it appears to be, why does it still happen? That’s not an easy question to answer. Twitter and social media further complicates matters as well. Because it now seems fairly obvious how the general Western public reacts to social media news feeds, statistical information is often manipulated, shrunk down to 140 characters or less. The responsible activist who seeks straight statistical information, such as data showing the drive hunt’s economical impact on Taiji or to what degree the amount of dolphins killed negatively affects the ecosystem on a purely sustainable level, will have a hard time sifting through to find that material. Additionally, data such as what percentage of animals caught in drive hunts are exported to oceanariums are obviously kept under wraps by the oceanariums themselves. While SeaWorld officials have frequently been spotted in Taiji, some of them even viewing the captures taking place, there doesn’t appear to be any official information made available to the general public from SeaWorld indicating that they have obtained animals from Taiji. We can only fear that the worst is true, and that fear can sometimes be unhealthy. It can by turns move people to action as well as cause people to act irresponsibly. Dolphin deaths are no longer just an environmental issue now that a few bad apples have tweeted racist remarks toward Japan. Such unnecessary and unproductive behaviour just happens to be what journalists might prefer covering. And because of Twitter’s inefficiencies, drive hunt advocates have been able to find safety within these shadows, hiding behind issues that the most ignorant among us have raised in anger.
Social media’s real victim, however, is journalism itself. It may have been Powell’s aim all along to focus on Twitter’s impact on Taiji’s community, but in doing so, the irrefutably more dire concern—the drive hunt—was sloppily handled, provoking outrage from the likes of The Cove‘s director Psihoyos and Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, both of whom describe Powell’s coverage as lacking in research and ‘devoid of basic fact checking.’
While it is certainly a challenge not to become susceptible to the speed at which social media, especially Twitter, moves, are some journalists now willing to compromise thoughtful research for immediate coverage before a news story disappears (or are they so in a hurry that they are completely unaware they are doing so)? With so much emphasis being placed on what is happening on social media platforms, several detrimental things can occur: 1) an amateur, ignorant, or poorly informed opinion can be elevated to expert or authoritative level, 2) sources typically on the authoritative level, such as news broadcasters and journalists, can be brought down to the level of mere regurgitators, and 3) regurgitated material is then trusted as authoritative material because of who is relaying it, not who has originated the thought in the first place.
Twitter has changed the journalistic landscape, and as activists or even just solely responsible citizens, we must adjust to it in order to see significant progress.