Why I hate Earth Week

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By Nancy Payne

Nancy Payne grew up on a farm near Reaboro and now lives northeast of Lindsay. A magazine editor, a former CBC Radio producer and a freelance writer and editor, she never ceases to be amazed at the fascinating people and places of Kawartha Lakes.

Cleanups are wonderful, but when we’re finished, all we’ve done is return our surroundings to the way they should be.

What kind of terrible person objects to Earth Week cleanups of litter around our parks, roadsides and schoolyards?

Me. I’m that kind of person.

Actually, I don’t object to the cleanups themselves, and I applaud the people of all ages willing to undertake them. What frustrates me is that Earth Week has somehow become synonymous with picking up garbage, a focus that oversimplifies our responsibility to our local environment and the health of the planet, and pushes the truly critical large-scale issues out of sight.

Our governments and school boards continue to position the Earth Week garbage pickup as an act of environmental heroism. (This year, the city is providing garbage bags and gloves to groups undertaking what it calls 20-Minute Community Clean-ups.) Picking up garbage is a good thing, but if our vision for the environment ends there, we’re missing some essential questions.

First of all, how is it that we keep doing this to each other? The McDonald’s bags and Tim’s cups (so many Tim’s cups) in the ditches along my rural road — part of which runs through a protected wetland — aren’t being tossed there by tourists or people from the GTA. It’s neighbours, or at least, fellow residents of Kawartha Lakes, throwing their garbage on public land and their neighbours’ properties. Our bylaws aren’t stopping this behaviour, so why aren’t we doing more to make littering and the harm it causes socially unacceptable?

Second, why do we keep saying that when we go out and gather up other people’s garbage, we’re saving the Earth? Cleanups are wonderful, but when we’re finished, all we’ve done is return our surroundings to the way they should be, before stuff blew out of people’s recycling bins or got chucked out of car windows. The green rhetoric obscures the fact that we should never have to do garbage cleanups in the first place. It’s a bit like washing the dishes after a meal — things are tidier and we feel better but we haven’t moved anything forward.

Third, if we weren’t expending so much mental and physical energy just to get things back to the status quo, what else could we be accomplishing in the fight against pollution and climate change? If we didn’t head home congratulating ourselves on a job well done after 20 minutes of litter pickup, we could harness that energy to lobby governments at all levels to crack down on companies that pollute our waterways and spew excessive greenhouse gases. We might insist that manufacturers reduce packaging and produce items that last instead of dumping their mess on us and our landfills.

I’m not saying we should stop doing Earth Week garbage pickups. I just want us to keep asking questions, and to remember that if we really want to help the planet, we have to look beyond the litter. There’s only so much we can do for the environment as individuals, and it’s great that people are willing to tackle what they can. But let’s ensure we keep the pressure on big polluters and the governments that regulate them, because that’s where real change has to happen.

Is it better to clean up garbage than leave it lying around? Of course. Is removing it a kind thing to do for each other and for wildlife? Of course. Should we be treating garbage cleanups as all we need to do to save the planet? Of course not. Do I really hate Earth Week? Of course not.

1 Comment

  1. Wallace says:

    People living in CKL love to ridicule ‘city-its’ that come up here from the GTA — I lived in the GTA for almost 30yrs and I rarely saw dog feces and garbage left on walking trails and parks anywhere. Up here, you can’t walk 3 steps on any trail , school yard or park without stepping in dog doo or trash . Whats wrong with people up here ??????

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