Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
From group oyster-shell bagging to a naked bike ride, some Earth Day events are more colorful than the standard festivals and tree plantings.
When Earth Day began in 1970, the dire state of cities had a lot to do with it. Urban industrialism had literally become lethal: During a particularly warm Thanksgiving weekend in 1966, the smog in New York City killed nearly 200 people. As the environmental historian Adam Rome told CityLab’s Laura Bliss in 2015, back in the ‘60s, “[c]ities epitomized everything that was wrong with the planet.”
A lot has changed in the intervening decades. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed after the first Earth Day, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts followed. Cities have cleaned up their air and water, and many have stepped up as forces for environmental progress. San Francisco is now striving for zero waste by 2020, and Portland, Oregon, is working toward cutting the city’s carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030.
According to Kathleen Rodgers, the president of Earth Day Network, thousands of events will happen around the world this weekend in honor of Earth Day, which is officially on Sunday. They are intended to draw public attention to issues that environmentalists wrestle with year-round: climate change, habitat loss, and plastic pollution, to name a few.
But for many city dwellers, the goal is a little simpler: to engage with their communities in an Earth-friendly way and have a good time. Here are a few of the more unusual ways that American cities will be advocating for a healthy planet this weekend.
Drinking Thomas Dolby’s Beer in Baltimore
If you live in Baltimore, you may have spotted Thomas Dolby driving his motorboat around the city’s harbor. “I don’t have a car, but I have a little motorboat, and I use that to get around,” Dolby told CityLab. “You’ll often see me out there on my way to Safeway to get groceries, or on my way to Fells Point to get breakfast.”
Those who don’t know Dolby from his jaunts around the Baltimore Harbor may remember the British musician’s 1982 hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Now you have another reason to listen to it: Baltimore’s Peabody Heights Brewery has partnered with Dolby to release a new wit—that’s a Belgian wheat ale, in brewery-speak—called “She Blinded Me Wit Science.” Fittingly, the label will feature an image of Professor Trash Wheel, the newest googly-eyed trash-collecting device on the Inner Harbor.
Proceeds from the beer will benefit the Healthy Harbor Initiative, whose goal is to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. The beer will be released in Baltimore and around the region on Saturday, just in time for Earth Day.
“I think people should get enjoyment out of their harbor,” said Dolby, who is currently a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University. “The harbor is already a great center of gravity for Baltimore events … but it would certainly be nice if there were a beach or two.”
Recycling Oyster Shells in Richmond
On Saturday, volunteers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center, just outside of Richmond, will help the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) stuff mesh bags with oyster shells, which the organization collects from restaurants around the state. That’s the extent of what the volunteers will be doing this Saturday, but it’s not the end of the process. The bags—which program director Todd Janeski described as “10-by-24-inch sausages of shell”—will then be submerged into tanks, where staff members will introduce oyster larvae. The larvae will attach themselves to the shells, then grow into spat and eventually full-sized oysters, with shells of their own.
Once the larvae have attached themselves to the recycled shells, VOSRP will pour the bags back into the Chesapeake Bay, where they will become part of an oyster reef the organization has been building since 2013. Because an oyster shell has two valves, and 10 to 15 larvae typically attach themselves to each valve, “that means we return 20 to 30 oysters to the Bay for every oyster that we get,” Janeski said.
This is the first time that VOSRP has invited the public to participate in shell recycling. But its work, and that of similar organizations, is vital to the health of the bay: In the early 1900s, 17 million bushels of oysters were being harvested from the Chesapeake Bay annually. By 2001 it was just 23,000 bushels, the lowest harvest on record. Building oyster reefs helps restore the bay’s ecosystem, which in turn helps waterfront communities along the bay to thrive.
“Maintaining a viable working waterfront is really important within coastal communities,” said Janeski. “So in a small way, we’re helping contribute to that.”
Daring to Ride Bare in San Francisco
Over the years, there have been plenty of reasons to get naked in public in San Francisco, and since 2010, Earth Day has been one of them. This Saturday is the eighth annual San Francisco edition of the World Naked Bike Ride, a clothing-optional bike party that takes place all over the world. The ride will begin in the city’s Embarcadero district, pass an Earth Day Festival in the Civic Center, and end in the Castro neighborhood. (This will not even be the first naked bike ride in San Francisco this year: SF WNBR has already hosted two clothing-optional bike parties in 2018.)
Whereas many Earth Day events are broad in scope, this one has a specific aim. “This event was born out of the anger many of us were feeling at the [BP Oil Spill in 2010], and the resulting oil spill that has continually devastated the Gulf,” Oswald Montecristo, one of the organizers, wrote in an email. “Our WNBR for Earth Day is meant to be a visual and audible reminder of this.”
Participants are encouraged to decorate their bodies with black body paint, or trash bags, to mimic spilled oil. If black paint isn’t your style, the organizers suggest wearing green to promote Earth Day.
Besides these events, there will be plenty of other untraditional Earth Day celebrations happening around the country. In Milwaukee on Saturday night, REmodel Resale Fashion Boutique will host an Earth Day Fashion Show to promote recycling and refurbishing clothing. In Dallas, Tesla owners will gather on Saturday at the city’s EarthX conference to admire each other’s cars and endorse the benefits of electric vehicles. In Monterey, California, a group of divers plans to remove a dumpster’s worth of garbage from the sea. And on Sunday in Corpus Christi, Texas, there’s going to be a Plogging Party, where runners will pick up garbage while jogging through town.
For Kathleen Rodgers, it isn’t a day to celebrate, exactly. “We don’t use the word ‘celebration’ inside Earth Day, though we recognize that people use Earth Day to connect with each other or do things that are cool or funny,” she said. “For the most part, our work is entirely focused on getting communities to make commitments around what they’ll do for the next 365 days.”
So remember, whether you strip down and get on your bike, watch a fashion show, or attend a concert: Earth Day is fun, but it’s also one reason why American rivers no longer catch on fire.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of of Tesla owners that would gather in Dallas. The article has been updated.