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Celebrating Earth Day

April 22, 2013

Today is Earth Day, a day when we celebrate our home planet and demonstrate our support for environmental protection. According to Wikipedia, the name and concept of Earth Day was pioneered by John McConnell in 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. He proposed March 21, 1970 as the first Earth Day, which is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. A month later, a separate Earth Day was founded in the United States by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental "teach-in" first held on April 22, 1970. Eventually, April 22 was adopted as global Earth Day in 1990, and environmental events are now organized in 192 countries on this day.

Senator Nelson conceived the idea for Earth Day when visiting Santa Barbara after a terrible oil spill off the coast in 1969. Outraged by the devastation, Nelson proposed a "teach-in" modeled after highly effective Vietnam teach-ins of the time. He wrote:

  • I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the Nation. The crisis is so imminent, in my opinion, that every university should set aside one day in the school year – the same day across the Nation – for the teach-in.

Now, of course, Earth Day is celebrated by nations, cities, corporations, nonprofits, universities and individuals around the globe. While no accurate figures exist, it's estimated that over 5,000 nonprofit organizations participated in the Earth Day 2000 event, and over a billion people participated in Earth Day 2007.

While many of these events still resemble "teach-ins" or teachable moments – with both positive and negative attributes – some focus on the crisis to come rather than on the progress to date. For example, I recently saw an ad for a city-wide event that read, "Extreme Weather and Rising Waters – Climate Change is Here!"

Granted, sometimes one has to scream to get people's attention. And, there's plenty to be worried about with climate change. But, on the other hand, there is a lot to celebrate in the environmental movement.

For example, a recent communiqué from Earth Share, a coalition of environmental organizations, lists the following accomplishments of their members from the past year:

  • Established the Hurricane Sandy Wildlife Response Fund to conduct rapid assessments of the ecological impacts of Hurricane Sandy and assist with urgent remedial needs.
  • Secured 70,000 square miles of protection for Pacific Leatherback turtles.
  • Raised fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
  • Conducted more than 800 outdoor excursions for approximately 14,000 inner city youth, teaching self-reliance outside an urban setting and encouraging an active role in protecting the environment.
  • Build new oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill.

As I've mentioned in earlier blog posts, American Express has been actively reducing its carbon footprint since 2007 when we pledged to reduce it by 10 percent by 2012. We exceeded this inaugural goal significantly, lowering our carbon footprint by 27.5 percent including an absolute 10.2 percent decrease in electricity use and business travel. While this is significant progress, we recognize that there is more work to be done. So, we have recently pledged to reduce our carbon footprint by an additional 10 percent by 2017.

Achieving our new goal will require significant efforts from all of our employees worldwide, in the same way that achieving our inaugural goal was the result of teamwork across the company. In addition to becoming more energy efficient at existing work sites and building new energy efficient sites, we have focused attention on increased internal communications around environmental issues using our employee intranet. This year, we are planning to get employees even more involved in adopting environmentally preferable behavior (like turning off lights and monitors when not in use) through a program that we call Green2Gether.

Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his environmental work in 1995, and passed away in 2005. His legacy lives on, however, and it's embodied in these words from his book, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise: "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around."

What are you doing to celebrate Earth Day? Let us know by clicking here, or follow me on Twitter at @tmcclimonCSRNow and let me know there.

P.S. Did you know that the first Earth Day celebration in Central Park in 1970 drew over one million people and was the largest gathering in the country that day?


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