This year, the summer solstice has a special significance. Not only will 21 June, the longest day of the year, be celebrated at Stonehenge and elsewhere, but it will also mark Clean Air Day in the UK. This happy coincidence has a deeper resonance, for it is perhaps when the light is strongest that we can appreciate the vital need for air that is free of the toxic pollution that kills 7 million people each year. This seasonal synchronicity is the exception, however. It is rare for environmental campaigns to be linked to the annual cycle of the seasons. We seem to be missing a trick by not connecting our struggle for sustainability with the reality of the world around us.

A seasonal code

By origin, of course, we are seasonal creatures. As the Earth goes on its annual journey around the sun, its unique spin and tilt means we receive different levels of light and warmth. It is this that structures our year in the UK into spring, summer, autumn and winter, with roughly three months of each. All four of these seasons are deeply coded in our culture, most clearly in the Christian calendar. Christmas takes place only a few days after the winter solstice, when the hours of sunlight have reached their most meagre. This celebration of the birth of Jesus marks the sun’s rebirth, building on the earlier Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Yet we are far less seasonally minded than we once were. Our lives are spent increasingly indoors, centrally heated and air-conditioned, with little determined by the Earth’s annual journey. Farmers now make up a tiny percentage of the workforce, and supermarkets now provide all-year availability of foods that once we could enjoy for only a few weeks at a time. Our year is now largely structured by the logic of consumer capitalism, which has successfully occupied previous national and religious milestones such as Easter and Christmas, along with Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, Thanksgiving has become just a foretaste to Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in America; for the more environmentally minded, it has also become international Buy Nothing Day.

The seasons are not just being masked: they are also being disrupted by pollution. Bali now endures a ‘rubbish season’, when the annual rains wash in mounds of trash from neighbouring Java. Up above, the malignant layer of carbon dioxide we’ve pumped into the atmosphere is trapping the sun’s heat and driving climate disruption. Last year, I had bright red poppies in my London garden in November, months after their traditional flowering season. In Greenland, where this heating is amongst the fastest in the world, one species of sedge is marking the arrival of spring 26 days earlier than just a decade ago. Patterns of interaction between people, animals and plants that have been slowly built up over centuries are being overturned in the space of a few years, separating species from their expected sources of nutrition and further accelerating the planet’s loss of natural richness.

The burning of fossil fuels has created a new season of smog that stretches across Eurasia in the early winter. This is the time when air pollution and winter chill combine to bring the now infamous ‘airpocalypse’ to cities such as Beijing and Delhi. In Pakistan, environmentalists now refer to this deadly period around November as a ‘fifth season’. Since the turn of this century alone, over 70 million people have died prematurely from air pollution, a leading cause of mortality that spikes each winter, according to data from the Health Effects Institute.

Abstract activism

Many of us are working to halt this destruction and build a sustainable society. But the ways in which we to act to regenerate Nature are by and large abstracted from the seasonal foundations of our lives. We make annual contributions to environmental charities; we may volunteer time in the summer, when it’s warmer. But our disconnection from the seasons means that we have lost touch with the natural calendar. We’re therefore surprised when hurricanes hit the global headlines in August and September. Yet this is a regular pattern.

There is certainly no shortage of individual days designed to spur social and environmental awareness. The United Nations has a list of almost 150 official international days, many of them associated with sustainability, such as World Environment Day on 5 June. Yet there is no clear logic as to why these days are connected with the issue of concern.

The annual Days for the Earth: a selection

2 February: World Wetlands Day

3 March: World Wildlife Day

21 March: International Day of Forests

22 March: World Water Day

22 April: Earth Day

20 May: World Bee Day

22 May: World Biodiversity Day

5 June: World Environment Day

8 June: World Oceans Day

17 June: World Desertification Day

18 June: Sustainable Gastronomy Day

21 June: Clean Air Day (UK)

16 September: World Ozone Protection Day

4 October: World Animal Day/St Francis’ Day

21 October: Apple Day (UK)

5 November: World Tsunami Awareness Day

5 December: International Smog Day

11 December: International Mountain Day

The one exception is Earth Day. At the outset this had strong seasonal roots. Back in November 1969 at the UNESCO Conference on the Environment in San Francisco, local peace activist John McConnell proposed that a special day be set aside to honour the Earth. This won wide support, and the first Earth Day took place on 21 March 1970. This was specifically designed to coincide with the vernal equinox, traditionally the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. Only a month later, on 22 April, a second, much larger Earth Day took place, mobilising more than 20 million Americans to demonstrate for a healthy environment. And it is this day that is now marked internationally as Earth Day.

How seasons can drive change behaviour

We know well how the religious and commercial calendar can drive our behaviour in powerful ways. Fasts such as Lent and Ramadan prompt believers to achieve something together that is normally difficult on one’s own. Festivals such as Christmas can also change over time to have a profound impact on what we do – nowadays, however, often driving excessive spending, much of it unwanted and wasteful both financially and materially.

It is surely time for us to employ the cycle of the seasons to inspire environmental action and strengthen our relationship with Nature. In place of isolated days, we could create seasons of activism to accelerate the sustainability transformation we need. Each season would need to be immediately obvious, linked to what is going on both in our localities and across the wider globe. Each could stretch over months, bringing together noisy festivities and periods for reflection; community engagement along with changes in personal lifestyle; political campaigns as well as special ceremonies of both celebration and grief.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this cycle could start on the winter solstice on 21 December with the Season of Conservation. This would focus on activities that highlight our need to cherish the Earth’s resources, building on existing modern milestones such as Dry January and Veganuary as well as the Lenten fast (which is already a time of ‘carbon fast’ for some environmentally committed Christians). With the vernal equinox on 21 March, we would move into the Season of Renewal – with Earth Day at its centre. The return of light and warmth could be celebrated with high-profile events to replace fossil fuels with renewables, together with street-by-street retrofitting festivals and community planting programmes.

The summer solstice on 21 June could then mark the beginning of the Season of Heat, when we would focus our attention on the reality of global warming, remembering the millions whose lives are already damaged by a heating world. The onset of Atlantic hurricanes could be used to highlight the consequences of extreme events, now exacerbated by climate change. With the autumnal equinox on 21 September, we would enter the Season of Abundance, a familiar time of harvest festivals. We already have Apple Day on 21 October, introduced by the charity Common Ground to celebrate Britain’s vast diversity of apples and orchards. For Christians, this season could also centre on the feast of St Francis on 4 October, which now coincides with World Animal Day.

Yet as this season turns into winter, it has the darker side of peak pollution across the northern hemisphere.

Smog Day – commemorating loss, stimulating actionLooking at the news every winter, I had been struck by the reports of killer pollution hitting cities in Europe, China and India. And yet nothing seemed to be being done to focus activism around this annual recurrence. So, working with the New Weather Institute’s Andrew Simms and Sarah Woods, Ritu Kumar and I came up with an idea. On 5 December 2017, the 65th anniversary of the great London smog that killed 4,000 people, the world’s first Smog Day was marked in London and Delhi. The aim was to focus on the raw issue of air pollution on a day that would resonate with ordinary people – and do it in a way that could connect citizens across the world. A series of revealing interviews were captured on film from police officers and schoolchildren, taxi drivers and joggers in both London, the original home of smog, and Delhi, which now suffers perhaps the world’s worst air.

In London, the day was marked with a solemn wreath-laying ceremony. Sarah and Andrew spoke these moving words:

“As we breathe today, together, we call for change. We call for clean air for those who live now and in the future. And as we breathe today, together, we commit to doing all we can and ensuring that others do all they can, so that every person in London and in Delhi and across the world, every person can breathe clean air. Together we breathe.”

Smog Day was picked up by the United Nations Environment Programme, and we hope to mark it again in 2018. This day of loss could then be matched with 12 December, a time to celebrate the finalisation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, itself just nine days before the winter solstice.

Harnessing the seasons in this way would help to counteract the erasure of Nature in our lives and make new links in our communities and with peoples around the world.

If we are to make sustainability a lived reality, then we all need some seasoning.

(I would like to thank Ian Christie for his wise comments and suggestions.)

Nick Robins is Professor in Practice for Sustainable Finance at the London School of Economics. He has just stepped down as a trustee of Resurgence and writes here in a personal capacity.