Washington Post - Saturday, April 22, 2000

 

Earth Day: From Radical to Mainstream

The "Ag-Earth Day" celebration held on the Mall for the last 10 days includes the usual eco-fare: lectures about owls, booths on recycling and a place where children can decorate their own Earth Day grocery bags.

by Dan Eggen

But the event--sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and dozens of farm groups and agribusinesses--also features a slate of rather surprising participants, among them, Monsanto Co., the Fertilizer Institute and the American Forest and Paper Association.

How times have changed. Three decades after the creation of Earth Day--which the Daughters of the American Revolution were quick to denounce as "subversive"--everybody seems to want a piece of the action.

Organizers predict that 500 million people worldwide will participate in thousands of Earth Day-related events this year, including today's gathering of up to 300,000 in front of the Capitol, where Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith and other celebrities will sing the praises of conservation.

The three major broadcast networks aired dramas this week with Earth Day themes, while the official Web site--www.earthday2000.net--hawks hemp teddy bears, energy-efficient light bulbs and T-shirts like the one worn by DiCaprio in support of the Kyoto environmental accord.

Earth Day, in other words, has become a bona fide mainstream extravaganza, underscoring how issues considered radical just a generation ago now enjoy widespread--even global--support. In South Africa, activists today will stage a mock evacuation around a nuclear plant, while Indonesians have pledged to keep a million cars off their streets as part of a day-long ban.

But Earth Day has also become a powerful marketing tool for companies that drill for oil, manufacture chemicals and build cars--many of which have launched aggressive advertising and public relations campaigns portraying themselves as stewards of the environment.

Ag-Earth Day, held in conjunction with Earth Day though not part of its official roster, is a three-year-old event spearheaded by agribusiness and farm groups that, as frequent targets of activists, felt their environmental successes had gone unnoticed.

DuPont, the largest chemical company in the world, touts its "respect and care for the environment" and co-sponsors a National Geographic radio program called "Pulse of the Planet." Ford Motor Co. is the exclusive sponsor of a special Earth Day edition of Time magazine, and the automaker's Web site includes recordings of "sounds of the rain forest."

To detractors, these and similar efforts are an abomination, representing attempts by companies to "greenwash" their negative impact on the environment. What began 30 years ago as a counterculture uprising to clear the air and clean the water, they complain, has become just another catchy advertising slogan. Some die-hards have even suggested ignoring or scrapping Earth Day.

"In one sense, seeing some of the largest polluters in the world gathering together to celebrate Earth Day is a huge victory. Our message has reached the highest level of corporate America and government," said Josh Knauer, founder of www.envirolink.org, a popular activist Web site, and GreenMarketplace.com, an online clearinghouse for environmentally friendly products. "But the downside is that Earth Day has been co-opted. I think it has lost its real meaning."

Denis Hayes, lead coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, disagrees. Noting that an estimated 20 million Americans participated in the inaugural event, Hayes said Earth Day was always meant to have mainstream, bipartisan appeal.

"There are different kinds of events that are designed to reach a different kind of audience," said Hayes, now 55 and president of the Bullitt Foundation, a conservation group based in Seattle. "If Earth Day was merely a celebration of the already converted, then it would be a failure. If it's just the Sierra Club talking to the Audubon Society, there's no use having it."

Among the corporations involved in today's Washington rally--officially dubbed EarthFair 2000--are Honeywell Power Systems, a subsidiary of the engineering and defense conglomerate; and Toyota, which is giving away one of its Prius hybrid electric cars.

Other companies are honoring the day by organizing their own gatherings and campaigns. The National Association of Manufacturers is launching a bus tour today to discuss environmental issues with children across the country; this month, the group also held an Earth Day reception for members of Congress.

The gulf between business- and activist-sponsored Earth Day events reflects a decades-long rift between the two sides over environmental policy. Most activists support more and tougher government regulations to combat problems such as global warming; businesses tend to favor voluntary programs and market incentives, such as the program allowing utilities and others to buy pollution credits.

Ladd Biro, a senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said environmentalists should be more willing to work with groups like his to bridge the gap.

"We're not the enemy anymore, if we ever were," he said. "This effort that they embarked on 30 years ago as a protest movement is now so ingrained in our society that everybody accepts the message, but now they object because everybody's involved. . . . They've lost their platform for complaining because things have gotten so much better."

Tom Van Arsdall, a farm-group lobbyist who coordinated Ag-Earth Day, said: "The objective should be to have everyone take ownership of Earth Day. . . . We fail if we decide that only some people have exclusive ownership of being an environmentalist."

On the first Earth Day, most U.S. cities were choked with smog, two-thirds of the nation's waters were unsafe for swimming, and gasoline and paint still contained lead. Just a year before, Ohio's Cuyahoga River was so polluted that, famously, it caught fire.

Earth Day, then, served as the symbolic spark for a dramatic transformation in public attitudes toward the environment. That year, President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress over the next decade passed sweeping laws aimed at cleaning up the country's water and air and banning the insecticide DDT and other toxins.

"It's an almost universal belief now, that was almost unheard of 30 years ago, that everyone has a fundamental right to a healthy environment," Hayes said. "That's a huge departure from the attitude of 'that's just the way things are.' "

In this year's presidential race, Vice President Gore (D) has sought to position himself as the environmental candidate, recently penning a new introduction to his 1992 environmental tome, "Earth in the Balance," and planning an appearance at today's rally on the Mall. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) bills himself as a "common-sense" environmentalist who supports voluntary reductions in air pollution. The candidates disagree sharply on issues such as climate change and oil drilling.

Today's official Earth Day event will focus on using "clean energy" to combat global warming, which most scientists attribute to auto emissions and other pollution. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that January through March of this year was the warmest three-month period in the United States in 106 years of record-keeping; the agency predicted that the higher temperatures would put many states at risk of drought in the coming months.

All of which explains why visitors to the Mall today may notice the unmistakable scent of french fries: the event will include bio-diesel generators powered with used cooking oil, in addition to others using wind, sun and natural gas. The fair will include more than 200 exhibits from environmental groups and companies, and a four-hour entertainment program hosted by DiCaprio, starting at noon.

Even before its launch, Earth Day 2000 attracted its share of hype and controversy. About 30 people were arrested for demonstrating in the Capitol Rotunda yesterday. Calling itself the Democracy Brigade, the group marked Earth Day with a twin protest: supporting campaign finance reform and opposing damage it says manufacturers have done to the environment.

"Clean Election, Clean Environment" read the banner of Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the 90-year-old New Englander who walked across the country last year to promote election reforms. Haddock and the rest face fines of $500 and six months in jail, U.S. Capitol Police said.

DiCaprio, whose ABC interview with President Clinton caused a minor journalistic uproar, has also come in for criticism. Detractors complain that the "Titanic" star's leadership of Earth Day is hypocritical given his taste for SUVs and complaints that a national park in Thailand was damaged during filming of his recent movie.

"You've got a chairman who is a known environmental offender," said Glenn F. Kelly, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, a business group.

Despite such criticism, Michele Ackerman, communications director for the Earth Day Network, said the group has been overwhelmed with volunteers and donations for the $1 million Mall event.

Said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth: "I think we can recapture Earth Day from corporate 'greenwashing' by sending certain fundamental messages. If we can get people resonating with the speakers on the Mall and dedicated to carrying out specific actions, we can have a real impact."

Staff writer Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.

EarthFair 2000

Today's EarthFair 2000 on the Mall is the centerpiece of worldwide Earth Day celebrations. The local event will be broadcast live on the Web at www.earthday2000.net. Here's a rough schedule of what's happening on the Mall:

10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: More than 200 exhibits in five tents--labeled Earth, Water, Air, Sun and People--including birds and other wildlife. There will also be a "walk-in rain forest" and races with solar-powered slot cars.

Noon to 4 p.m.: The entertainment stage, west of the Capitol between Third and Fourth streets, will feature music by Carole King, Clint Black, David Crosby, the Urban Nation Hip-Hop Choir and others. In addition, a long roster of politicians and celebrities--among them, Melanie Griffith, Ted Danson, Chevy Chase and Donna Mills--will speak.

Hosting the event will be actor Leonardo DiCaprio, chairman of this year's Earth Day.

Visitors are urged to ride Metro, which opens at 8 this morning, to the Mall.

It being Earth Day, the event will be held rain or shine.

EarthFair 2000

EarthFair 2000, celebrating Earth Day, will have exhibits on the Mall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a rally from noon to 4 p.m. today. Street closings will include Third and Fourth streets between Independence and Constitution avenues.

 

2000 The Washington Post Company

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