Earth Day Plus 38

At a Seattle conference in September of 1969, US Senator Gaylord Nelson announced a nationwide grassroots demonstration for the following April. It would be a day of protest to put the environment on the national political agenda.

It would be a teach-in, recognition of all the environmental problems the country was facing in the last decades of the 20th Century.

And so Earth Day was launched on April 22, 1970. That day, 20 million Americans, many of them college students, demonstrated for a better environment. They acknowledged problems such as polluting power plants, the unchecked discharge of raw sewage, invisible toxic waste dumps, the widespread use of pesticides, the proliferation of freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of species.

That first Earth Day was militant, disruptive, and counter-culture. It’s remembered as one of the founding events of the environmental movement in America. In this way it takes its place along side a decade of legislation in the late 60s and early 70s that would later be called by the poet Robert Hass, the Bill of Rights for the American environment: the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I wouldn’t be bringing all this up if Earth Day had not reached that proverbial tipping point, and now been transformed by that great yawning vortex of American capitalism.

Now Earth Day is a celebration, and it’s approaching the status of one of those low-level economically viable holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s Day. April 22nd used to have about as much appeal to Joe Public as President’s Day. But now there’s money to be made and the green markets are coming out of the woodwork.

This year there was an Earth Day supplement in the newspaper featuring ads for plant sales, energy star appliances, environmentally friendly condo developments, an Earth Star subdivision, natural foods stores, “natural” wood patio furniture, and everything organic. There’s an article that gives you ten simple ways to “green” your home and save money, and there is even one clever ad about “saving some green” when you by bunk beds.

I’m not sure I prefer the new economically friendly Earth Day to the old one, but I know there’s not much you can do to sustain a protest movement after many of the goals have been acknowledged and legislated.

Back in the old days the establishment we railed against was mostly made up of “environmental exploiters” such as chemical, utility, and forest product corporations. They were huge and faceless and the damage they had wrought was collective.

Now almost 40 years later we acknowledge environmental problems on the global scale, and instead of faceless exploiting corporations, many of the problems can be found in our daily habits of living-our individual carbon footprints are too big, and legislation of carbon in the atmosphere has yet to follow.

I am not immune to the hype. We live in a “green” house, and we buy organic. At least two of my fleece jackets are made from recycled soft drink bottles. We covet a hybrid. We purchase our way into Earth Day compliance, from our bamboo flooring to carbon credits.

Last Saturday we walked among hundreds or others at an Earth Day fair at Hatcher Gardens. (One of the ways you know a holiday has arrived is when the weekend before is co-opted to celebrate it.) I spent sixty bucks on plants. I got to pet a baby llama and hear a man recite the Ogden Nash rhyme about the difference between a llama and lama. It was a great morning, though a little rainy. There were no protests about anything, though goodness knows we could supply a litany of possibilities.

So next year we’ll see if the holiday spirit grows or whether Earth Day’s peaked like global oil. Either way, I’ll be out there with some green backs in my pocket, looking for a eco-bargain.

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