Earth Day Has Helped Turn America 'Green'
Since the April 22 observance began in 1970, conservationism has become popular.
Earth Day happenings - thousands of them around the United States - have become as commonplace as egg hunts on Easter or scary costumes on Halloween.
Tree plantings, riverbank cleanups, "All Beings" parades - a cynic might dismiss them as feel-good events soon forgotten as participants get back to their real lives polluting and consuming.
But 28 years after the first Earth Day brought out activists and nature lovers, the vast majority of Americans consider themselves "green" throughout the year. And it's not just the granola-crunching, hiking-boot-shod sector of society; most of those in pinstripes and wingtips label themselves "environmentalists" as well.
According to a recent study by Wirthlin Worldwide, an international public-opinion organization, environmentalism "has become deeply rooted in the US national psyche." Two-thirds of Americans consider themselves actively pro-environment, this report found, while only 4 percent were found to be "unsympathetic" to environmental concerns.
"Since its extremist beginnings 30 years ago, environmentalism has matured, gaining popular support and becoming part of the mainstream," said the Wirthlin organization, headed by former Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin. "It's not just about saving whales and rain forests anymore."
Nor is it an exclusively Democratic issue, although environmental activists count most of their political champions among Democratic ranks. After a faltering year or two, the GOP-led Congress now has several key lawmakers leading the way as environmental advocates. Among them: Reps. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, Constance Morella of Maryland, and Christopher Shays of Connecticut.
The bill to stop logging on national forests is led by Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. Congressmen Rob Portman and John Kasich, two Ohio Republicans best known for fiscal conservatism, are sponsoring a $400 million debt-for-nature bill to save tropical rain forests in developing countries. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon issued a report by 1,600 scientists urging that the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts be strengthened to protect the marine environment.
Businesses, too, are getting on the environmental bandwagon. Many now incorporate environmental audits into their policies and practices. While much has been made recently of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, for example, the average American car is nearly 60 percent more fuel-efficient than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970.
On the Mall in Washington, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is sponsoring dozens of exhibits and events meant to celebrate "industry's environmental successes in honor of Earth Day." Included are electric and gas-powered vehicles, advances in recycling, and "earth-saving manufacturing processes."
While crediting some industries for environmental advancements, the leaders of several major environmental and public-health organizations are quick to dismiss the NAM event as "outrageous green-scamming from the nation's largest polluters."
Still, some activists acknowledge the positive impact of industry participation.
University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried surveyed staff members of 18 major environmental organizations about whether business-group participation in Earth Day did any good. While some denounced "green-washing," others took a longer view.
"If a corporation is moving to be green, that's just fine," said one. "Many of today's corporate leaders participated in the first Earth Day in college; it turned them into environmentalists. If they try to co-opt Earth Day, they'll just help spread environmental propaganda."
Still, many experts say it will take more than good intentions and greener attitudes to make a real difference - especially since there are 50 million more Americans now than there were in 1970. Installing a low-flow shower head or making a weekly trip to the recycling center is not enough.
In many places, this has taken the form of grass-roots efforts to expose polluters and force them to change their ways.
A new tool in this effort was launched last week by the Environmental Defense Fund using data from the Environmental Protection Agency. A "Chemical Scorecard" Internet site (www.scorecard.org) will allow anyone with a computer to zero in on the pollution loads and health hazards in their own community - 17,000 polluting facilities in 2,000 counties.
Meanwhile, much of the environmental focus is on changing tax laws to lift the burden on things that are "good" - personal income and businesses - and shifting it to those that are "bad" - pollution and resource consumption.
"Whether you're conservative, liberal, or right in the middle, tax shifting makes sense," says Alan Durning, executive director of the Seattle-based research organization Northwest Environment Watch. "It gets taxes off our backs and onto our side."
While this may be a good idea, advocates acknowledge it would take considerable political effort to make it happen,
"We still have a long way to go," says former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day. "But every time Earth Day comes around again, it still impresses me to see the enthusiasm and energy that people from all walks of life and all parts of the country bring to this great cause."