Washington Post - Sunday, April 23, 2000


Tens of thousands of people turned out on the Mall yesterday to celebrate three decades of progress in cleaning up the environment and to warn that new restrictions are needed to combat the threat of global warming.

by Dan Eggen

Under gray skies and with blustery winds that likely kept thousands more away, Earth Day 2000 mixed Washington politicking with Hollywood celebrities to draw a diverse crowd of young and old.

Teenage girls shrieked for actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the "Titanic" star who served as the event's chairman. A few activists booed Vice President Gore. And aging baby boomers sang along with the likes of David Crosby, James Taylor and Peter, Paul and Mary in an appeal to stop global warming. The entire multimedia program, broadcast live on the Internet, was powered by generators fueled with wind, sun, natural gas and discarded cooking fat.

"According to scientists around the world, we are on a downward slope," said DiCaprio. "Enough is enough. . . . Our planet's alarm bell is now going off, and it's time to wake up and take action."

The Washington rally was the focal point for a worldwide slate of Earth Day celebrations and protests. Activists from Taipei to Mexico City hosted a wide variety of events, including a one-day boycott in Jakarta, Indonesia, against driving cars and a clean-energy picnic in Warsaw.

In an appearance intended to tout his environmental credentials for the presidential race, Gore repeated his call for the eventual elimination of the internal-combustion engine. The likely Democratic nominee also said that coal-fired power plants, exempted from many modern pollution laws, should be held to stricter standards and urged Congress to act.

"We need to make the next 10 years the environmental decade," said Gore, who made several references to "Earth in the Balance," his reissued 1992 book on the environment. "We have to stand against the pollution apologists."

In a radio address, President Clinton also used Earth Day to blame the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to recognize the global warming threat and to urge passage of legislation promoting clean and efficient energy.

Republican National Committee spokesman Chris Paulitz called Clinton's proposals "small ideas to help the environment," and said Gore's book highlighted his "extremist ideas" on the environment. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican presidential nominee, declined an invitation to appear at the event, said Denis Hayes, who helped coordinate the first Earth Day in 1970 and was a leader for this one as well.

Organizers with the Earth Day Network, which put together the event, said 300,000 people were on the Mall at the event's height yesterday afternoon, with about 500,000 attending throughout the day.

But many participants and visitors said they were disappointed in the turnout, which they said may have been hurt by the chilly weather. The U.S. Park Police no longer issues crowd estimates for Mall events, but in 1990, the police estimate of the Earth Day gathering was half the size of the one given by organizers of the event.

"At least it's not raining," said Sara Zdeb, a policy associate with Friends of the Earth, whose members were desperately working to keep a 30-foot-tall inflatable globe from blowing away. "There are still thousands of people here, and that should send a strong message to the decision makers in D.C. that they should start paying attention to the environment."

Jeff Chaloupek, 34, a District resident who works for an international consulting firm, spent part of the day listening to music from a cozy spot under a tree. "We only have one planet," he said. "If we waste it or spoil it, we put ourselves in a great deal of trouble."

Fran Morrill, from New York City, said she attended Earth Day because she felt it was important to help people raise their consciousness. "We all live on Earth, but we exploit the natural resources," she said. "It's our obligation to use these resources wisely."

The crowd's makeup varied wildly, from suburban soccer families to ponytailed environmental protesters. A group of Seattle activists wearing sea-turtle costumes--last seen at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank protests--made an appearance, while a group of Gore critics held signs urging him to "walk the walk" on environmental issues.

Visitors strolled through tents labeled Earth, Air, Sun, Water, People and Children, which together featured more than 200 exhibits on solar power and other "clean-energy" issues. Most scientists believe that heat-trapping greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, are the key cause of a rapid warming trend in the Earth's atmosphere.

One of the biggest attractions for children was a faux rain forest in a trailer operated by Washington's Discovery Creek Children's Museum. The exhibit included dart frogs, macaws, a waterfall and scores of tropical plants.

"I want to see a bird!" exclaimed Jordan Dail, 4, who waited in line with her parents and little sister to visit the rain forest.

"Both of the girls are pretty into wildlife and nature, and we thought this would help educate and entertain them," said Jordan's father, Jeff Dail, of Cambridge, Md. "We want them to learn to respect and care for the Earth."

Children were plentiful, underscoring Earth Day's transformation from a fringe protest movement into a mainstream campaign. Some die-hard activists feel the event has become so hyped that its message has been diluted, apparently prompting one of yesterday's placards: "Save The Earth--Not Leo's Career."

But Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin senator who founded the original event, said he was thrilled with how popular environmental issues have become.

"The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in school today are better informed and ask better questions about the environment than college seniors did in 1970," Nelson, 83, said at the rally.

Despite the crowds, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told reporters that he worried that the seizure of Elian Gonzalez was detracting attention from the event. "Let's not let what happened in Miami block the importance of Earth Day," he said.

Before the Mall rally, VIPs gathered at the Mayflower Hotel for a "thank-you" breakfast and pep talk. Celebrity guests such as Melanie Griffith, Chevy Chase, Tom Arnold, Clint Black, Donna Mills, Peter Yarrow, Dennis Weaver, Ed Begley Jr. and Edward James Olmos joined Hayes, Nelson, Richardson, Environmental Protection Agency head Carol M. Browner and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). All were included later on the roster of rally speakers.

Chase, like the other famous names, was in Washington to draw more popular attention to environmental issues. He said Third World industrialization and overpopulation are his main concerns. "Unless we help them--educate them--we're in trouble," said the actor. "The world is in trouble."

Chase and his wife, Jayni, who heads Friends of the Earth, were scheduled to stay at Camp David with the Clintons last night. He later joked with reporters about his family's strict adherence to conservation: "We never flush. It's a mess."

The breakfast featured a number of heartfelt speeches. Weaver spoke at length on fossil fuels, Mills spoke of using the Internet to mobilize millions of people across the globe, and Hayes paid tribute to Earth Day founder Nelson as the man who "changed my life."

In 1970, as a young Harvard student, Hayes said he called Nelson about the upcoming Earth Day the senator was planning--thinking it might be a good way to jump-start his romantic life. "I thought, 'That's probably something girls would be attracted to,' " Hayes said.

The former senator received a standing ovation, then told the audience how the first Earth Day changed American politics.

"It did shake up the establishment," he said. "It did get the attention of Congress. It did put the issue on the national agenda."

Staff writers Michael H. Cottman and Roxanne Roberts and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


2000 The Washington Post Company