The first Earth Day had a decidedly hippie vibe.
College students in flip-flops, singers like Willie Nelson and about 20 million other Americans took to the streets in 1970 to protest oil spills, toxic waste dumps, pesticides, deforestation, power plants and even freeways. Safe to say as much as anything their target was corporate America.
Today, if you want to save the oceans you might buy an extra level for Angry Birds 2, or play Candy Crush Soda Saga on your iPhone.
That’s the idea behind Apple’s partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF): For the next week, if you buy any of 27 apps, or make purchases related to these apps, the proceeds will go to WWF. The goal, Apple says, is to raise awareness about saving the forests, the oceans and the pandas.
But will it make much of a difference?
Paul Jepson, a course director of conservation and management at Oxford, is skeptical. He worries that this type of "consumer environmentalism" oversimplifies the real work that needs to be done to protect the planet and "carries the risk of ever more shallow public engagement and digital activism where masses of people get behind "solutions" that simply make themselves feel good."
Jepson points out that the work of conservation is both messy and complex. A case in point, he says, are "the massive investments in proposed new rail lines and roads that cut across protected natural habitats." Preserving these habitats, by stopping, say, the proposed Serengeti Highway, could mean working with tribal leaders and global conglomerates to "secure compensation where destruction of areas is unavoidable and identify win-wins where they exist. It's a world of negotiation and compromise, of mitigation hierarchies and complex offset mechanisms, of shaping the future of the natural world as well as protecting the past."
In other words, it's nowhere near as fun as playing Angry Birds 2 or getting the Panda Island on Dragon City.
While the co-opting of Earth Day to sell more stuff follows the decidedly American tradition of turning every holiday into a celebration of consumerism, and big corporations have been using Earth Day as a marketing gimmick since the beginning (Target dedicated its first parking lot recycling center in 1972), the trend toward consumer environmentalism has troubling implications, Jepson writes.
Campaigns like Apps for Earth may give Apple a coveted endorsement from WWF, which is good for the brand, and WWF access to Apple's tech-savvy and middle-class customer base, Jespon writes, but Earth Day needs to amount to more than slogans and "an opportunity for environmentalists to spread the word. It needs to be a day of coming together with the professional environmental movement."
Apple, of course, sees the initiative in a completely different way. Considering that the App store has millions of users across 155 countries, and that games that are part of Apps for Earth have a huge reach ("Angry Birds 2" has been downloaded 85 million times) Apple will be spreading the message of environmental awareness like few things it's ever done before.
It's also part of a much broader effort for Apple to green its supply chain. In October, Apple announced new solar energy plans in China. Over 90 percent of the company's global facilities are now powered by renewable energy.
And for the WWF, the program will not only increase awareness about its work, but potentially millions of dollars to invest in conserving forests, oceans, freshwater, endangered species and fighting climate change.
So build that new forest on Sim City. It's $1.99 well spent.
And if you're still skeptical of the effort, The New York Times recommends other apps like GoodGuide, a shopping app with a database of over 200,000 products that tracks their effect on the environment.
And for those who would rather avoid the App store altogether on Earth Day, there are more traditional ways to celebrate: Catholic Relief Services recommends asking Congress to protect people most harmed by climate change, attending a farmer's market and supporting fair trade.
Jesse Hyde is an editor at the Deseret News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org