In your face, Earth Day

The House greenlights an environment-choking energy bill just in time for Earth Day. Why aren't more enviro groups rallying to plant trees and stop Bush?

Published April 22, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

On the eve of the 35th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the House of Representatives has passed a grossly porkified energy bill that doles out billions in subsidies to fossil-fuel industries, shortchanges alternative energy and efficiency initiatives, and indemnifies makers of the gasoline additive MTBE against liability for groundwater contamination. And this time the bill may actually have a chance of passing in the Senate, perhaps as early as next month, after years of stalemate.

This and other dismal news rolling off Capitol Hill of late would seem good reason to make Earth Day 2005 a revolt, not a celebration. Yet when Muckraker searched high and low for organizers of big, spirited, on-the-ground protests, we found little resembling the kind of mutiny the political moment would seem to demand.

The biggest collaborative D.C.-based event in the works is -- drumroll please -- a press briefing. On Thursday morning, legislative experts from 11 major national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters, will discuss the energy bill for an audience of journalists. Not exactly a cri de coeur.

Separately, the League of Conservation Voters is sponsoring a campaign with the catchy slogan "Plant Trees, Stop Bush."It's essentially a fundraising effort asking folks to send in $40 "in honor of Earth Day and to protest the Bush administration's abysmal record on the environment." In return, contributors get a white oak sapling. "Please bring your family and friends together and plant it in your yard," LCV president Deb Callahan exhorts in her outreach letter. "Tell everyone who asks that you're 'planting trees to stop Bush.'" We'll be sure to check back and see how effective that strategy proved.

NRDC is showing considerably more ambition with the launch of its "Re-energize America" campaign, which is bringing together steelworkers, evangelicals, national-security leaders, ranchers and other unexpected allies to advocate for clean-energy investments and conservation practices. And TV producer Laurie David tomorrow is launching a "virtual march on Washington" on (the site will go live on Earth Day), hoping to rally a million Americans over the next year to demand action on climate change.

The Sierra Club, for its part, is focusing on local events, ranging from a canoe and kayak regatta in Sioux Falls, S.D., in which paddlers will decry factory-farm runoff, to a big human wave along Milwaukee's shoreline that will prompt passersby to "Wave if you love Lake Michigan!"

According to Sierra Club spokesperson Dave Willett, Earth Day is a time for grassroots efforts, not marches on Washington: "It's really a day when big national events don't work very well. It's community-oriented -- people want to focus on what's happening in their backyards."

Indeed, community groups throughout the United States and the world are organizing the ol' tried-and-true Earth Day fairs, festivals, concerts and cookouts. At these local events, saplings might even be doled out for free, along with more enticing booty like lemonade, popcorn and rainbow face paint.

The Earth Day Network lists info on numerous events on its Web site and is itself working to organize local-level get-togethers. EDN president Kathleen Rogers cites plans for "dozens and dozens of events around the country, [mostly] in major slums in major cities." Her goal is to diversify the movement, she said: "We're targeting African-American, Latino, and low-income communities." For example, in six economically challenged neighborhoods around the country, scientists will be dispatched to test air pollution and then announce the results at local press conferences. And in celebration of nature, there will be a "sunrise ceremony in Los Angeles with Native Americans and Mexicans," Rogers said.

One of the biggest gatherings will be in Manhattan's Central Park, she said: "We'll have lots of booths and bands. Everybody's going to be there. It'll just be terrific." What bands will rally the masses? This Rogers considers beside the point. "I don't know. I don't care. That doesn't matter to me at all," she said. "We're not interested in creating events that are about entertainment. We're making serious connections to communities."

Well, then, for a certain crowd-pleasing diversion, we'll turn away from environmental groups to everyone's favorite lefty ice cream company, Ben & Jerry's. On Earth Day, in front of the Capitol in Washington, B&J will unveil a massive Baked Alaska (touché), 4 feet by 8 feet and filled with 75 gallons of Fossil Fuel-flavor ice cream, part of the company's "Lick Global Warming" campaign and its efforts to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A catchy idea, to be sure, but as luck would have it the Senate will be in session on Friday, so outspoken greenies like Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., won't be able to join in the fun. Looks like sticky Fossil Fuel may be dribbling down the Capitol steps in the warm spring sun with little acknowledgment.

Given the Senate's full schedule, there's not much going on in the way of Earth Day events on Capitol Hill, according to Lieberman's press secretary, Casey Aden-Wansbury. Still, Lieberman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others will make an Earth Day gesture by introducing legislation to boost resources for the National Park System.

Industry, meanwhile, is cooking up some creative Earth Day confections of its own. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, for instance, "will be launching a publicity campaign to inform Americans that the new fleet of vehicles has 99 percent cleaner smog emissions than vehicles from 30 years ago," according to its spokesperson Eron Shosteck. (But don't expect AAM to be talking up the new fleet's fuel economy, as automakers' achievements in that realm over the last three decades are definitely nothing to brag about.)

The Edison Electric Institute, a major utility lobbying group, has announced, just in time for Earth Day, plans that should help reduce bird deaths caused by contact with power lines, in collaboration with the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By far the most amusing event this Earth Day season looks to be an awards ceremony hosted by the industry-funded Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy. The organization will be "recognizing an individual or individuals for work in their field supporting rational, science-based thinking and policy-making." The trophy winner? None other than "Smokey" Joe Barton, the Republican rep from Texas who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is a leading pusher of the energy bill and its industry giveaways. (Last year's recipient was Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who has since labeled climate change a big "hoax.")

The irony here is almost as rich as it will be at the event President Bush has planned for Earth Day -- an appearance in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, where he will participate in a public-service project to commemorate "National Volunteer Week." In addition to being a fine spot for a red-state photo op, the Smokies also happen to be among the most polluted mountains in the nation.

By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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