- By Elizabeth F. RalphElizabeth Ralph is a researcher at Foreign Policy.
Today is Earth Day — the annual holiday, first celebrated in 1970, to recognize and encourage environmental protection efforts, all while binding disparate peoples around the globe together in a common cause. It’s a stirring cause, but one that was greeted this year with many articles lamenting the world’s declining interest in both the holiday and the environmental movement it represents.
In the United States, at least, there seems to be some truth to these grumblings. As the Huffington Post reports, polling data demonstrates that environmental issues have become less important to Americans over the past few decades:
[A] 1971 Nixon poll found that 63 percent of respondents said that it was "very important" to work to restore and enhance the national environment, with 25 percent saying it was "fairly important" and only 8 percent saying it was "not too important." But in the 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 39 percent of respondents said it was very important, while 41 percent said it was fairly important and 16 percent said it was not too important.
Just looking at Google searches for the term "Earth Day" tells you something. Worldwide, the popularity of the search term is at an-all time low since 2004, which is as far back as Google Trends goes. It’s unclear what caused the search numbers to drop so suddenly in 2005 and again in 2009 (let us know if you have any theories).
According to Google, the United States still leads the world in terms of Earth Day interest. But the search term’s popularity within the country also seems to be on the decline, with variations from year to year:
But for all those who now fear that environmental complacency has put both Earth Day and the Earth in peril, it’s worth noting that things may not be that bad. The same Huffington Post study showed that Americans are using less electricity and recycling more than they were 30 years ago. And hey, for a time "Earth Day" was the "hottest" Google search term today in the United States, Canada, and India. Not even Ryan Lochte’s new reality TV show could top it.
Could it be that we’re showing our Earth Day spirit in ways other than simply Googling the term? Or, in this plugged-in world, does Interet popularity truly correspond to awareness, enthusiasm, and activism?