Gas Masks and Honeybees: The Visual Culture of Earth Day

I’ve never been all that moved or inspired by Earth Day, or at least not by the 21st century Earth Days I’ve known. I have experienced April 22nd primarily as a celebration of aestheticized environmentalism and corporate greenwashing, when I’ve noticed it at all. I’m not alone in these feelings: in a piece in Sierra calling to “Return Earth Day to Its Revolutionary Past”, youth climate activist Jamie Margolin writes that she “hate[s] Earth Day. Or at least the modern-day, Hallmark-card Earth Day.”

The Earth Days I remember have offered sanitized visions of an almost Edenic world – a planet afflicted by a few human messes that might be cleaned up and set right if we were all to plant a tree or look at the internet through an emerald filter once every 365.25 days.

Rather than exposing the dire ecological straits we find ourselves in, the corporate-driven visual culture of Earth Day tends to impose a delusional image of a near Arcadia: cartoon flowers encircling a blotchy turquoise dot, a corporate logo inscribed on rolling green hills, the sun emerging just over the horizon. I’ve always found the saccharine messaging about “caring for our mother” to be cruelly disingenuous when accompanied by no greater action than a green-lettered press release, another twist of the knife of anthropogenic environmental destruction. Corporations have spent the last several decades weaponizing idyllic aesthetics and pristine natural scenes to mask the ecocidal violence they have wrought, and I regret that artists have sometimes been enlisted in crafting the visual culture of this International Day of Greenwashing.

Let’s take Google as a case in point. One of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world, Google has recently come under fire for funding climate deniers, making large contributions to purveyors of politicized climate misinformation like the vaguely-named Competitive Enterprise Institute and the State Policy Network, alongside Koch-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Google made these donations all while claiming to support global action on climate change.

The most visited webpage in the world, April 22, 2020.

Google also happens to maintain the most visited website on the internet. Each day, all of its pages are graced with a Google Doodle, a little drawing or animation typically celebrating an event, holiday, or anniversary. Earth Day is no exception. Google’s Earth Day Doodle will likely be the most widely seen image in the world this week, the work of art with the single largest audience: Google processes 3.5 billion searches every day.

The internet giant chose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with an interactive game: an animated bee flutters next to a cartoon planet, oddly ocean-less and dotted with shrubs. A “play” button pulses on top of the planet, inviting the user to begin.

I click. Flowers bloom in a row and the bee, rendered as a little yellow dot, zooms around the pastel planet, still alarmingly lacking in water. The following text blips across the screen as the anthropomorphized bee zooms up to greet us:

Happy 50th Anniversary of Earth Day! Today we celebrate our planet and one of its smallest, most critical organisms: The bee! Did you know? Pollination by bees makes two-thirds of our world’s crops possible… As well as 85% of the world’s flowering plants! Learn more about our winged friends, and help them in their journey to pollinate a variety of blooms…

No mention of climate change, no allusion to environmental degradation, barely a hint that these bees or the plants they pollinate might be in danger. Tinkly, synth-y music fades in and I begin to mouse my bee through ceaselessly scrolling identical meadows, bumping into flowers that magically multiply at contact. Every so often, I’ll do a particularly good job pollinating one of these determinedly non-specific flowers and an inoffensive bee fact will appear: “drones are male bees!”

Earth Day 2020 Google Doodle: I mouse my bee through ceaselessly scrolling meadows.

Setting aside Google’s failure to mention any environmental risks to bees in this sweet interactive, the designers of this widest-reaching Earth Day image would have been hard pressed to choose a less climate-related environmental problem than the plight of the honeybee. As David Wallace-Wells has reported, the panic over bee colony collapse is essentially a “climate red herring.” While most of the planet’s insects are disappearing due to warming, “colony collapse disorder has basically nothing to do with that.” Commercial honeybees are dying because industrial beekeepers expose them to insecticides called neonicotinoids.

While Google partnered with a lovely organization called The Honeybee Conservancy to create this interactive, the truths omitted by this visual celebration of Earth Day says much more about Google’s priorities than the messaging they’ve chosen to include. On this international day of environmental action, the company with the world’s largest platform marked the day’s passage with a visual representation that makes no mention of the greatest crisis (environmental or otherwise) that humanity has ever faced, instead choosing to highlight an environmental issue that, in fact, has very little to do with our accelerating climate catastrophe.

It all comes down to aesthetics, and Google is not alone. Somewhere along the line, we decided that the visual and artistic language that accompanied Earth Day would soothe and sanitize, coddle and greenwash – rather than expose and motivate.

But Earth Day hasn’t always been like this, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Earth Day began in 1970 as a day of mass protest and consciousness-raising, and it initiated vital political recalibration in the United States, ushering in a decade of legislative and legal protection for the environment.

Official national Earth Day poster, 1970.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aesthetics of the first Earth Day were very different. The official national poster showed a clogged highway under an ominous orange sky, the sun blocked by smoke-spewing factories, airplane contrails dusting a tilting Capitol dome. The poster represented environmental reality, not an imagined natural idyll. Dirty industry and fossil fuel-powered transportation were a danger to us all.

Another inaugural Earth Day poster, created by Robert Leydenfrost and Don Brewster, was even more ominous, a full-face gas mask enveloping a darkened earth in a shadowy void. The message was unambiguous: all life, human and non-human, was endangered by atmospheric pollution.

“Earth Day” by Robert Leydenfrost (designer) and Don Brewster (photographer), 1970.

Eerily familiar now that masks have become de rigueur across much of the United States, the iconography of the gas mask was central to the aesthetic identity of this first Earth Day, which drew 20 million Americans, a tenth of the country’s population at the time. Protestors nationwide wore masks and carried flowers, emphasizing both the stakes of the environmental crisis and the real-time harm done by air pollution.

Earth Day, 1970, Bettmann/Getty Images.

This flower and mask combination was a brilliant visual protest: the masks left no doubt about the severity of the situation. The visual culture of Earth Day in 1970 made it clear that the planet was in crisis and people were in danger; no cartoon forest or paean to Mother Earth would be sufficient. At the same time, the flowers were a persistent reminder of all that might be lost, of the beautiful world worth fighting for, of the hope that such a world might bloom again.

City Hall Park, Earth Day, 1970, AP Photo.

This Earth Day, and for all the Earth Days to come, we must find a way to strike that balance again. The stakes are too high for cute utopianism. Earth Day may have devolved into a corporatized greenwashing opiate, animated flora and fauna masking collaboration in ecocide, but it can become revolutionary again if we pair an unblinkered exposition of the extremity of the crisis with a reaffirmation of our love for life on earth.

We must make images that tell the devastating truth about what is happening to our planet and the life that inhabits it, images so powerful they cannot be sanitized into endless cute bee oblivion. These images must radicalize us, radicalize us with love. Smell the blooming magnolias, in spite of the gas mask.

(Top image: New York City, Earth Day, 1970. Santi Visalli/Archive Photos via Getty Images)

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Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, set on a dying planetHis engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

4 thoughts on “Gas Masks and Honeybees: The Visual Culture of Earth Day

    • Thank you, Cathy! I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction, reframing the meaning of Earth Day.

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