With Earth Day fast approaching, Samuel Findlay stood on the corner of Broadway and poked a pile of bedraggled butt-ends with his foot.
"Twenty to 40 per cent of all the litter out here is cigarette butts," Findlay sighed on a sunny Friday afternoon, as he paused from collecting trash along downtown’s streets. "These filters don’t decompose, they don’t biodegrade. People don’t realize the responsibility they have here. They just flick them."
Friday marked the second year in a row Findlay and his family turned out to volunteer with the Downtown Business Improvement Zone’s annual Earth Day Clean-Up. (Actual Earth Day — the 42nd annual day for environmental action — is today.) What brought volunteers out was as diverse as the crowd: For some, paying tribute to Earth Day was a matter of community or corporate responsibility. For others, including Findlay, it was a matter of faith. "We are here to preserve what God has given us," Findlay said, noting his family also recycles and helps promote community gardens. "We’re not the important thing here. God is. Society today says, ‘Get what you can.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give what you can.’ "
And really, whatever one believes, isn’t that just the theme of the event? Earth Day was formally launched in 1970, a grassroots response to dawning discontent over oil spills, pollution, the proliferation of toxic chemicals and the suburban takeover of wild lands. It was announced to the United States with an hour-long Walter Cronkite special; one million people flooded Manhattan’s Central Park for the inaugural Earth Day rally.
Forty-two years later, scientists’ reports have grown darker and the headlines loom more dire. In response, the green movement has crystallized into a driving economic and cultural force, led by a multiplying vanguard of trends and technologies: locavores, electric cars, whole foods and low-flow toilet rebates.
And yet, the woes Earth Day seeks to draw attention to remain familiar. We’d say this civilization has come so close and yet so far, except in fact that isn’t true. When it comes to correcting our environmental crash course, we’ve never come close at all. "As a culture, we haven’t really grappled with the reality that we need to make a fundamental shift in the way we structure our economy and our society," said Josh Brandon, a spokesman for Winnipeg’s Green Action Centre.
"Using recycled paper and reusable coffee mugs is a start, and it’s really important to do those things. Every small step we take takes us in the right direction. But we need to make some big shifts as well, and we need to make them quickly."
On the plus side, people are listening. Whereas Earth Day was "radical" 42 years ago, Brandon said, the idea of how to "live lighter on the Earth" has become positively mainstream: Across Manitoba, organizations and companies are jumping on board with eco-education or tie-in events. Even the Jets Gear store is offering $5 off reusable Jets eco-bottles until the end of today.
And in Brandon, about 300 people are expected to gather at the city’s Princess Park today for a city-sponsored Earth Day extravaganza. There will be free compost, free tree seedlings from Trees for Tomorrow and environmental displays.
"With the new technology coming out in transit and water conservation, as that becomes available it has a cost savings to it, so it entices people more," said Lindsay Hargreaves, Brandon’s environmental initiatives administrator, who helped spearhead the city’s Earth Day celebrations. "And with all the social media and environment being a hot topic, it’s created more awareness.
"It’s trendy to be green."