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How Earth Day became … so everyday

At 38, an activist event has become an occasion for noting widespread practices – and for eyeing new concerns.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

A poke at pollution: A Pace College student went mask-to-magnolia in New York on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.

AP/File

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At 38 years old, Earth Day seems to be entering a midlife identity crisis.

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By one estimate, some 1 billion people around the world will do something to observe the anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, a landmark in the history of the environmental movement. But attitudes and activities will vary widely. While some celebrate nature's beauty and wonder, others will protest environmental degradation and demand action.

Today environmental concerns are aired year-round: Reports from the United Nations and Al Gore's perpetual slide show warn of the dire effects of climate change.

A cable channel called Planet Green debuts June 4, the first TV network to cover the environment full time. Even James Bond gets into the act this fall. The next 007 film, "Quantum of Solace," will feature an ecovillain trying to take over the water supply of a small country.

So where does Earth Day fit in? Everywhere, apparently. "Earth Day is all things to all people. It's a symbolic representative of the desire for everything we need to do to respect how we treat the earth," says Frank Maisano, an energy-industry spokesman in Washington.

Earth Day isn't even a day anymore. While April 22 is the official date, it's grown to become an earth week, an earth month, and more.

"It's the Earth Day 'season,' " says Paul Hawken, author of a book on the environmental and social-justice movements, "Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming."

An Earth Day with an identity crisis features an odd mix of mourning and celebration, Mr. Hawken says, sort of like a New Orleans jazz funeral. "You cry all the way to the grave, and you dance all the way back," he says. "You mourn what's lost and is being lost, and you celebrate this extraordinary upsurge of groups and organizations and people in the world" who are working on environmental problems.

Some think the day has become as innocuous and uncontroversial as Mother's Day. Others suggest it has succumbed to commercialism. "Is Earth Day the New Christmas?" asks Advertising Age in a story this week.

"It's relaxed into a kind of therapeutic and consumer movement. We buy things to protect the environment," says Paul Sutter, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia who tracks the environmental movement. "We recycle, but I don't think there's nearly as much of an activist strain as there used to be."

Today's Earth Day Network, a nonprofit that keeps a database of local events and provides help to thousands of activities around the world, descends from a group of young activists in 1970 who answered a plea from then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin and piled into borrowed space in Washington to start a phenomenon. Denis Hayes, who led the first Earth Day effort, now sits on the Earth Day Network board.

Still an 'entry point'

Despite the year-round attention the environment receives, Earth Day remains a vital "entry point" for people, especially schoolchildren, to begin learning about the issues, says Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network.

Today's spotlight on environmental issues has raised interest in Earth Day but also "leads us inexorably to a year-round Earth Day," she concedes.