An Ohio river so polluted that it caught fire. A spectacular California coastline covered in slimy oil from an offshore drilling snafu. These were the two main events that prompted the first Earth Day event 40 years ago in New York. Now the annual observance is marked everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
But despite the huge global awareness about environmental issues, activists maintain that the ecological problems are worse than ever.
That might seem counterintuitive, given the fact that the air is cleaner and the water clearer in many industrialised countries than it was in 1970.
Across the world, average citizens are taking to heart the mantra to reduce, reuse, recycle, and trying to minimise their environmental impact. They even thronged by the millions to see the high-tech eco-fable Avatar, which became the greatest box office hit in history and almost by definition one of the most important cultural influences of the era.
Companies seem to be slurping up the eco Kool-Aid just as voraciously. On every continent, businesses trumpet their achievements in going green.
But looked at from a global standpoint, say many environmentalists, there isn't much to celebrate this Earth Day.
The level of harmful emissions marches ever upward, and the destruction of critical natural habitats continues unabated. As the failure at the Copenhagen climate-change conference demonstrated, the political will to tackle these threats to the planet on a global level just isn't there.
48% believe global warming exaggerated
In the United States, where the first Earth Day kick-started the global environmental movement, 48% of people believe that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, according to a Gallup survey taken earlier this year. That dramatically affects the support for the far-reaching measures like carbon taxes and strict fuel- efficiency requirements that many say are needed to tackle the big problems.
While individual conservation should no doubt be lauded, many environmentalists argue it's not nearly enough.
"Even if every single person in the United States were to change all their light bulbs to fluorescent, cut the amount they drive in half, recycle half of their household waste, inflate their tire pressure to increase gas mileage, use low-flow shower heads and wash clothes in lower-temperature water, adjust their thermostats two degrees up or down depending on the season, and plant a tree, it would result in a one-time, 21% reduction in carbon emissions, when we need a 75% reduction," said Derrick Jensen, author of the book As The World Burns.
Much of what passes as corporate environmentalism is nothing more than a marketing gimmick dubbed "greenwashing," argue other environmentalists, such as Rebecca Tarbotton, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network.
"Some of the world's largest environmental bad actors from big oil giants like Chevron to big agribusiness like Cargill disingenuously spin their products and policies as environmentally friendly," she wrote on her blog. "I may be stepping out on a limb here, but when companies have a
business model that relies on cutting down the world's last remaining rainforests, scraping the bottom of the dirty oil barrel, poisoning our air and drinking water or jeopardizing our climate, Earth Day is not their day."
Hollywood is getting in on the picture.
'I am beginning to hate Earth Day'
Avatar's issue on DVD was timed to coincide with Earth Day, while Disney released a new nature documentary called Oceans, and other celebrities donated items and time for a special Earth Day auction at Christie's.
Even the US Navy, which is part of the world's biggest polluter, the US military, celebrated Earth Day. It already has a hybrid warship, and on Earth Day it scheduled the inaugural flight of the so-called Green Hornet, an F-18 warplane powered by a bio-fuel blend.
Stunts like these made Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of environmental publication Inhabit, very angry. "I'm really starting to hate Earth Day," she wrote on her blog Thursday. "I'm starting to feel that Earth Day is just a shallow marketing opportunity for companies to jump on the green bandwagon
and try to make some extra green using eco-cache."
A study by the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice backed up her cynicism. It found that the number of products in North American stores claiming to be green rose 40% last year to 2 210. Unfortunately, 98% of those offerings were judged to be "greenwash" - produced, marketed or sold in ways that were still environmentally damaging. - (Sapa, April 2010)
Read more: Column: There are no Greenies, only Brownies.