Nonprofit Voice | Confessions of a climate accepter and community builder

Earth Day turns 44 years old today. From the first celebration in the United States on April 22, 1970, Earth Day has grown into one of the largest observed holidays in the world, as organizers estimate more than 1 billion people participate in nearly 200 countries each year. Suzanne Burnes, executive director of GCN member Sustainable Atlanta, celebrates Earth Day 2014 by taking stock of how the environmental landscape has changed in 44 years and by noting that transformative environmental change for our planet can be strengthened by building community based on positive behavior rather than driven by guilt.

Image courtesy of NASA.

OPINION | by Suzanne Burnes, executive director of Sustainable Atlanta |  April 22, 2014

It’s Earth Day. 44 years we’ve been celebrating it, now. We’ve come so far since those surreal years (before my time) when evil companies just dumped chemicals on the ground, in our rivers, or sent them up smoke stacks. So many battles were hard-fought by those early environmental heroes. Big laws were passed, and big lawsuits were won. Dr. Seuss’s Lorax was redeemed! The mythical polluting Once-lers put scrubbers on their smogulous stacks, installed treatment systems for their Gluppity-Glupp pipes and even planted more Truffula Trees! The Bar-ba-loot bears are rebounding, the Swomee-Swans are seen again. As Dr. Seuss charged us in 1971, we did care a lot. Isn’t the environment fixed now?  

Ahh…the good ol' days when the sources of pollution were clear, the enemies were known, and the regulatory weapons of battle were tried and true. Fast forward to today's polluters. Do you want to picket the air polluters? Look no further than your inefficient furnace or that second refrigerator in the garage gobbling coal-fired energy. Would you like to shut down the water polluters? March over to your neighbor fertilizing their lawn or your local under-resourced sewer department operating our crumbling water systems. And Suess's Thneed (“a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need”) factories spewing toxic waste? While those still here in the United States spew far less goo, our global economy means your $6 t-shirt or smart phone case created goo in Bangladesh.

So, we’re all the enemies, turning our planet into an unpredictable, unlivable place. I guilt you about your SUV and living in the suburbs, and in return you can guilt me over my leaking toilet and forgetting my reusable mug when I bought un-fair trade coffee—deal?

What if there were another solution?

We are all heavily motivated by guilt; yet, that only adds to our sense of feeling overwhelmed. What if there were a way to flip the destructive cycle of guilt to a restorative cycle of inspiration and hope? What if there was a silver bullet that solves not only our environmental problems, but our social problems, our health problems, and our economic problems. It creates wealth, respects natural systems, and helps people find purpose. It is the antidote to our pervasive distrust. It’s so incredibly simple that we have dismissed its value for decades, taken it for granted and let it erode. Want a sustainable future? Build COMMUNITY.

Communities of people coming together, finding shared values and shared vision, sharing passions to work for a greater good – this is what will get us to an Earth Day 44 years from now.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic when you think of community—to see our simpler past through a fuzzy Hollywood lens and harken back to a time with a slower pace and a lesser need of "stuff" while hiding ugly inequalities in the corner. The sustainable community of today and tomorrow must genuinely invite all to the table. Not in a “my mom said I have to invite you so can you come” way that so many approach community engagement, but in a “we are totally different—imagine what we could learn from each other” way.

Communities of people coming together, finding shared values and shared vision, sharing passions to work for a greater good – this is what will get us to an Earth Day 44 years from now. While we’ll need plenty of strong new laws and regulations as well, it is community that will support us in making the daily behavior changes that it will take to ease off the climate change accelerator, and community that will support us in adapting to the new world we’ve already shaped.

So on this Earth Day, by all means get out there and plant a tree, clean up a stream, or spend some time enjoying the wonder of the natural world around us. But this year, pay attention to the folks around you wielding shovels as much as you're focused on the holes you are digging yourself. Take time to exchange phone numbers or emails with someone on that volunteer crew who doesn’t look like you and meet up with them again after Earth Day. Don’t have time to take the day off and volunteer?  Next time you see that neighbor take their recycling to the curb (the one you’ve lived across the street from for years but never met), introduce yourself and thank them. Start your own virtuous cycle of good, and you’ll be hooked on the smiles you receive!    

Suzanne Burnes is the executive director of Sustainable Atlanta.

Sustainable Atlanta fosters collaborative solutions that grow shared prosperity for our metro communities. Our programs bring people together to inspire each other and strengthen community – online ( and in neighborhoods (Greater Atlanta Ecodistrict Initiative).  The events calendar includes many Earth Day events as well as others which our community partners are holding around the region. Share your Earth Day stories with them and others at Look Up Atlanta.

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