The Case For Making Earth Day a Religious Holiday

7 minute read
Greenberg teaches in NYU’s Animal Studies Program and is the author most recently of The Climate Diet. Safina holds the Endowed Research Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is author of the forthcoming book Alfie and Me

Earth Day is upon us—that forlorn little non-holiday that some years sandwiches itself between Easter and Passover, or other years trails in the wake of those “real” holidays. If the Super Bowl is America’s unofficial national day of celebration, Earth Day is the collective yawn that brings a shrug. No recipes offer Earth Day chips and dips to serve when friends and beloveds gather in celebration of the miracle of a living planet. Because they don’t. Not even ours.

For the two of us environmentalists—one of us nominally Jewish, the other a recovering Catholic—we find the ill-defined nature of the only day honoring the place that makes life itself possible more than a little sacrilegious. So, on this 53rd Earth Day we thought it useful to pose what a real Earth Day should represent and how it could form a central time for a new approach to worship.

Before we step further into that loaded word, let’s back up. Even as Earth has sizzled—New York City had its warmest January on record and a February more like April—the idea of honoring this planet with its miraculous coating of life has somehow fizzled.

It wasn’t always that way. The first Earth Day, co-chaired by Republican Senator Pete McCloskey and Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970, brought more than 20 million people—a tenth of the U.S. population of the time—to the streets. According to a CBS News Special Report of the day, many high schools announced they would excuse absences. Earth Day 1970 remains, reputedly, “the largest single-day protest in human history.”

We remember when air in big cities still hurt our young lungs, and rivers were so polluted they repeatedly caught fire. The spirit then was to protest against chemical pollution and smog. Within a few years of that first Earth Day and the national sentiment behind it, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress passed unprecedented environmental laws including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, the National Environmental Education Act, and other protections that have greatly improved human health in our cities and communities and prevented the extinction of hundreds of species.

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But Earth Day may have fallen victim to its own success. Even though we face new and seemingly overwhelming environmental issues—the extinction crisis, the toxic chemical crisis, the climate crisis, acidification of the seas, the plastics tsunami—the spirit of the day is no longer mass protest. Yet current environmental problems pose existential threats to planetary and societal stability, even to civilization itself. One day out of 365 to mark the entire planet is too far a cry from the reverence and recognition owed the beleaguered planetary basis for our entire existence, for all known life.

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So, what would an earth-reverent belief system look like with Earth Day at its center?

To begin with, let’s take a look at what established religions get right and where we might take a cue. Perhaps the first step might be, um, unearthing the nature-centered origins of our existing religious holidays. Most of us know in the back of our minds that Christmas and Hanukkah fall around the time of the winter solstice; that Easter and Passover are celebrated in tandem with the arrival of spring; that Sukkot and Diwali mark harvest and summer’s last warmth, and Eid follows the path of the moon. These holidays have origins in gratitude. Gratitude for the sun returning. Gratitude for the harvest that could avert the starvation winter might bring. Thanks for when it did avert it. We could conceivably reframe these holidays as days of thanks for what the natural world gives and reminders that our responsibility for what remains is an ongoing covenant.

Next, we might look at what religions do to help us form community and mark life’s important benchmarks: birth, maturity, marriage, and death. What if we were to come to celebrate these benchmarks for what they are biologically? Birth, that ecstatic co-joining of atoms and molecules resulting in sentience might prompt a ritual of truthfully and factually recounting how inanimate becomes animate. Instead of (or in addition to) bar/bat mitzvahs and confirmations, would it be too much to expect our children to go beyond the average daily 20 minutes most American children spend outdoors, and commit to memory the names and descriptions of local plants and animals, or learn the considerations involved in correctly planting a tree? The covenant of marriage might be an opportunity to remind young couples to consider the burden children place upon the planet and to make vows of sustainable patterns of behavior going forward. Death, finally, might be recognized for what it is—a returning of atoms and molecules to the cycle. In the cycle of life, the coming apart is as miraculous a process as the joining. We still don’t really know how nothing became something and formed a universe in which random pulses of energy and matter coalesced into beings writing op eds. In short, there’s plenty of mystery to go around.

Lastly, we might just need a book. The Jewish Torah wraps around the year nicely from one Simchat Torah to the next, when we complete the annual reading of the story and start over again all in the same service, creating the feeling of a hermetic year. What if a book like that existed for the Earth? What if it were replete with hymns to this world of the living? What if it contained the stories of the prophets of natural earth knowledge—Darwin and Carson, Galileo and Humboldt? What if we came to mark those discoveries as the gradual opening of consciousness to the laws of nature. What if our Bible of the Natural World reenforced that a multiplicity of processes and phenomena still remain to be discovered? What if we used that book not to scold our children into following commandments but rather to light a path forward that encouraged discovery and reverence, and gratitude for the relationships that are this planetary spaceship’s life-support?

Are we proposing a whole new religion? We’re not quite sure. Maybe an old one. The core of all religious feeling is the sense that we are part of something much larger in space and deeper in time than ourselves. The world is certainly that. At any rate we do know that spiritual inquiry, just like scientific inquiry, is not static. Likewise a whole new continent of scientific knowledge has been revealed to us since America’s first and second religious Great Awakenings. It seems perfectly reasonable and spiritual to us that in a New Great Awakening this new knowledge-continent be incorporated into a progressive wisdom of life, death, and the universe.

In short, we must make nature central to our belief system with Earth Day or any number of earth-focused ceremonial days serving as regular reminders of what we owe our home planet. It’s symptomatic that many people seek nature in parks or on a dreamt-of photo safari. In a world of commodification, we presume nature must be a commodity, accessible by transaction. We’re accustomed to thinking that, just as cornflakes can be found in the cereal aisle, nature is stocked in places like Yellowstone. But nature isn’t just a place. And it shouldn’t be relegated to one box on the same calendar where “pick up dry cleaning” gets more ink.

We’ve got to convey to everyone that the planet whose rotation and revolution creates all 365 days is worthy of a recognition that spans all 365. Recognition of the planet was born in protest. Going forward it must be about reverence, about respect for the living world that makes human life, too, possible. Celebrating the whole world as a living miracle really should be more fun—and more win-win—than even the most-watched football game.

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