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A Hallmark Card for Mother Earth

Jessica Lee

There are those holidays that have arisen fairly organically out of real celebrations, such as Thanksgiving and Halloween, and then there are those that were, well, invented. Mother’s Day comes to mind, that Sunday of repetitive, identical flowers and brunches that each year raises the question: are these pancakes the best way to tell my mother I care for her? Does this mean I love my mother more on the second Sunday of May than on any other day? Anna Jarvis, the woman whose campaign led to the first Mother’s Day in 1914, was so shocked when she realized the materialism she had spawned that she quickly turned against it and spent the rest of her life trying to abolish the holiday.

Earth Day, too, was invented -- by one Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, in 1970, as a “huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment...to force this issue onto the national agenda,” in Nelson’s words. In fact, it worked beautifully; Nelson’s dream to capture the fiery spirit already driving anti-war protests came true. Nelson announced the event to the nation, the media carried the message, and, on April 22, the movement saw 20 million people take the streets. Cities sponsored creative events, local environmental groups raised awareness, and students held teach-ins and demonstrations.

Like any other holiday, Earth Day is menaced by superficiality. (Happy birthday, save the whales, and don’t forget to send your friends an animated e-card!) Earth Day still has strong activist roots (see www.earthday.net for the Earth Day Network) but the “general public” also has its own interpretation. Share a Vital Earth (SAVE), MIT’s undergraduate environmental group, contributes to that interpretation; some of our events, such as free plant handouts and a movie night with vegan cookies, verge on a glossiness that begs exactly what practical purpose they do serve. Maybe, by increasing the number of dormitory house plants drinking in carbon dioxide, we combat the greenhouse effect? More likely, we actually increase the amount of artificial fertilizer purchased in Cambridge!

But there are practical purposes and symbolic purposes, and symbolism can move mountains in environmentalism. Earth Day is a wonderful thing, because any time that one spends to pause and think about the earth’s needs -- even five minutes a week watering a new plant -- is good. In a cause like the environmentalist one, awareness-raising becomes a primary goal in itself, because awareness helps to change mindsets, and that is really the way toward an environmentally sustainable future.

And by the way, MIT’s Earth Day celebration, on May 29 (one week late) on Kresge Oval, will present not only symbolic but immensely practical approaches to environmentalism, such as bike maintenance, clothing exchange, and information about real environmental projects at MIT. Though you won’t find protests or teach-ins at our celebration, you will find practical ways to demonstrate your love for Mother Earth every day, not just Earth Day.

Jessica Lee is a member of the MIT group Share a Vital Earth.