Jed Goldberg. Photo from EarthDay.ca

When Earth Days across the map were first established, they were typically thought of as fringe festivals or radical gatherings. Now, every April sees an expansive and diverse celebration in countries across North America. But these popular Earth Day events would not be possible without the hard work of individuals like Jed Goldberg of Earth Day Canada, and his team of inspired environmentalists. Vegan Mainstream spoke with Goldberg recently about the planning involved for a large initiative such as Earth Day Canada, and what their goals are to encourage environmental awareness.

Vegan Mainstream: I’d like to start by just having you tell me a little about Earth Day Canada.

Jed Goldberg: Earth Day Canada is a national environmental charity. We’ve been around since the late ’80s. Initially, we were supposed to be a one-year wonder. We were founded to organize, coordinate, and promote the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1990. That event was really the first time Earth Day went international.

Prior to that it was an American phenomenon. That proved to be such a tremendous success, but most importantly, we were hearing back from folks that normally would not be communicating with an environmental organization.

In those days, the environmental community was pretty exclusive, but we were hearing from average people from all different walks of life. We realized at that point we had touched a nerve and we had the ability to communicate with these people and potentially inspire them to change their attitudes, behaviors and lifestyles.

Now, Earth Day, the event, is a very small part of what we do. Most of what we do is the development of programs that really are all about educating people, making them understand the consequences of our lifestyles and most importantly, making sure they appreciate all the options available to them to have less impact on the environment.

[Ed. note: A little history on Earth Day. Earth Day was first observed in San Francisco and other major cities on March 21, 1970. That date was chosen because it is the first day of spring in the United States. Another separate Earth Day was founded by a U.S. senator on April 22, 1970 with the goal of being an environmental teach-in. In 1990, 200 million people in 141 countries participated.]

VM: I saw on your website something called “action campaigns.” Can you tell me a little about these?

JG: We know there is a lot of excitement in April, when everybody is talking about the environment and expressing their concerns for the environment, but sometimes they lack focus and direction. What we want to do is channel this interest people have into some sort of concrete action.

This year, we are doing a campaign called “Take It Up for Earth Day.” It’s not about going to an event, it’s about learning about things you can do in your daily lifestyle that really do have a big environmental impact. By making modest changes in your lifestyle, there can be some really spectacular environmental benefits that come as a result of that.

We are asking people to not eat meat and have a plant-based diet. We are suggesting they do that for a minimum of a week, and hopefully for a month. We know from research we’ve seen that once people change their lifestyle for a month, and they do that on a regular basis, they can often break their bad habits and get into a healthier lifestyle.

We are also suggesting they don’t drink bottled water, don’t use personal care products that have toxic ingredients, and also that they unplug their electronics and go outside for a change. Get away from the screen, go outside, breathe some air and hopefully get a better appreciation of the environment.

VM: What are some specific ways you encourage people to give up meat?

JG: It’s really the same as with any other social movement. People need to be educated, so they need to understand why there are issues around eating meat, what the environmental impacts are, what the health impacts are and what impact [giving up meat] has on people around the world. They need to understand how easy it is for them to modify their lifestyle. Most importantly, they need to understand what their small actions can actually translate into in terms of benefit.

The last thing we want is for them to know they aren’t doing this in isolation; it’s not just them against the world, they are part of a whole movement of people who are interested in not eating meat. There’s a lot of momentum to that and a lot of good reasons people [should consider not eating] meat products.

VM: What sorts of information do you give people on the effects of meat-eating on the environment?

JG: There is tons of information out there, talking about the impacts of grazing cattle, what kind of an impact that has on climate change and on our food system, because these animals are consuming food that could be eaten by humans and by other animals. The amount of water being used, the methane given off, there’s all kinds of solid environmental reasons why you wouldn’t want to be eating meat, aside from the health issues. I think it’s fairly well understood now that diets high in red meat are also diets that are not healthy for our bodies.

VM: Do you talk about the effects of dairy and veganism at all, or just about the effects of giving up meat?

JG: Actually, we do talk about veganism. One of the things we are very fortunate to have is a lot of well-known people who are supporters of our campaign and who talk about the benefits of taking up these particular actions. One of these is Sarah Kramer, a best-selling author of The Garden of Vegan, How It All Vegan, and La Dolce Vegan. She’s a well-known advocate of veganism and she is also someone promoting our campaign and blogging for us. We also have Annie Leonard, a woman who did The Story of Stuff [Project] and various other environmental communication pieces. We have a couple of Olympic athletes helping us out as well, and a woman who is very well known here in Canada, Adria Vasil, who is a best-selling author of environmental lifestyle books.

VM: In your opinion, why do you think the focus on meat-eating is not as prevalent in environmental movements?

JG: Well, I wouldn’t say that it isn’t. I think vegetarianism might be overlooked as a really solid starting off point for anyone who is looking for an environmentally preferable lifestyle. It is also one of the easiest things to do, in getting yourself off of a meat-based diet. It’s not a difficult thing to start off slow, maybe a couple of days a week have vegetarian meals and work up from there. It’s the kind of thing we really like to promote, because it’s a really easy way to get people started.

It’s the kind of action where people start feeling the difference as a result of taking the action. You physically feel better not eating meat. That is going to contribute to your interest in maintaining that practice.

VM: How have you seen awareness increase since you’ve been with Earth Day Canada?

JG: Tremendously. These environmental lifestyle choices now are part of our daily lexicon. People have been communicated to so many times, they know what kinds of things they can do for the environment and what’s available to them. Unfortunately, there is still this disconnect where they feel they need facilitation, support, somebody to hold their hand and bring them through the process. That’s the role we like to serve. We are facilitators; we are people that try to inspire change. That’s the position we really relish in the marketplace.

VM: What are some actions Earth Day Canada has to help kids become environmentally friendly?

JG: I’m glad you asked that because we have one of the most comprehensive environmental education programs in the world, called Eco Kids. This is a program that offers both teachers and students tons and tons of resources on a whole range of different environmental topics. For the teachers, we also provide lesson plans. So, if they are teaching geography, [for example], on a particular area, they can go to our website, pick up lesson plans to use that day in their classroom that are focused on that particular need, but also on the environment.

We have all kinds of lesson plans available. For young kids, we have over 50 games on our website, plus activities and initiatives. We have “Eco Reporters” across the country: young kids who are budding journalists write stories about what’s going on in their communities, what other people could be doing, successes, [etc.]. It’s really quite compelling.

This program, Eco Kids, has really exploded. We have a lot of folks in the States who are part of our Eco Kids program as well. All of these materials are offered at no cost.

We also have a [mentoring] program for older youth, 16 to 24 year olds. We take these youths and we train them so that they can give environmental presentations to younger kids. This came about because we looked a report that talked about how young kids are so receptive to messages from teenagers. We thought it would be great to train these young people so that they can confidently go into a classroom and make a presentation. They’ll be able to develop all kinds of skills regardless of which direction they end up going in their lives.

Those are just two of our education programs. Education is a big part of what we do.

VM: Do you have to work with school districts?

JG: We have tons of teachers who just go to our website, grab the materials and use them, but we also work with school boards and school districts, and also with the Ministries of Education. Here in Canada, for instance, each of the individual provinces have their own curriculum expectations for different subjects and grade levels. We have developed our lesson plan so that they meet those expectations province by province.

VM: What are some overlooked ways to help the environment for kids and adults?

JG: Well, probably the most obvious is taking a pause. As humans, we have impulses that we sometimes just react to, whether they be good or bad. So, if you’re walking past a store window and you see a shirt in the window and you “gotta have it,” whether you need it or not.  You need to pause sometimes and say to yourself, “Is this something I need, or something I want?” “Do I really need to drive to that place, or could I walk?”

There are thousands of choices we make everyday, and if we just took a little bit more time in thinking about what our response is going to be to a particular situation, I’m sure we would have a lot less impact [on the environment].

VM: Are there any other initiatives Earth Day Canada is working on for this coming year?

JG: We have a couple of new programs we’re involved with. In Canada, there are a lot of new immigrants that come to this country, many of whom do not speak English. We developed a diversity outreach, where, in essence, we reach out to various ethno-cultural communities throughout the country and find out from them what kinds of environmental needs resonate in their community, how they like to be communicated with, and the kinds of projects and activities going on in their community. We really want them to provide us with user-generated content, hopefully in their own language, that would be culturally sensitive for their particular community and that’s something that we can then broadcast to similar communities across the country.

There’s a way to take a large segment of our population that is really under-serviced environmentally, and really listen to them and hopefully learn from them, and get them engaged and involved in the environmental community.

VM: What sorts of mediums do you run yourselves?

JG: We use a lot of social media, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs as well. We are also fortunate that we have relationships with thousands of other organizations across the country. We are very lucky that they often act as distribution partners for us. We’ll provide information on something we are involved with and they then communicate that to their networks. We communicate almost exclusively electronically. We don’t print much any more. Social networking has made this extremely easy, and it’s probably the most valuable globalization tool that has ever come around.

Find out more at Earth Day Canada.