COMMENTARY: Earth Day Activation

This Year, Earth Day Network Returns to Its Roots

The popularizing of environmental issues has done wonder for green causes, and Earth Day, directed by Earth Day Network (EDN), deserves a lot of the credit. The original April 22, 1970 event was akin to a Vietnam War protest or "Teach-In": 20 million demonstrators in Washington, across college campuses and local communities demanded that the government make significant changes to combat widespread pollution. The result? The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The environmental movement has never been more unified, says the Earth Day Network.© GETTY IMAGES

Before then-Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) founded that first Earth Day, the EDN writes "Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V-8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Environment was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news."

Fast forward to today, when SUVs fill the highways, tech trash clogs the landfills, and energy consumption is at record levels. The very protections ensured by that inspired legislation protecting our air, land and water have been under threat by a pro-industry Bush administration. As the Al Gore-tutorial-documentary An Inconvenient Truth so poignantly warned the world: climate change is an imminent threat for which we are all responsible. How serious is it? Here is the sobering outlook from a recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Mass extinction of species within 60-70 years; billions at risk of water scarcity especially in India, South Asia and Africa; reduction in food production and unmanageable hunger in the poorest parts of the world; huge numbers at risk of major flooding catastrophes.

The Earth is in crisis and Earth Day has taken on huge global significance. It is needed to spur grassroots activism as it did that first year, inspiring people not only to make changes in their own lifestyles, but to join with others to create an effective movement that can push through legislation and insist on strict environmental standards. American consumers have never before been so environmentally aware. In March, the Yale Center of Environmental Law and Policy’s Environmental Attitudes and Behavior Project released a study showing that 83 percent of Americans now say global warming is a "serious" problem. What’s more, according to the survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, 63 percent agree that the United States "is in as much danger from environmental hazards, such as air pollution and global warming, as it is from terrorists."

Businesses have caught on that consumers want more planet-friendly options. The organic food industry is growing at 20 percent a year and organic options are sold everywhere from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart. Registrations for hybrid vehicles rose 81 percent last year. Starbucks brews Fair Trade Certified coffee and Sherwin Williams sells low-VOC house paint. People are exercising their economic power, demanding "greener" products, and it’s working. But they need to exercise their political power, too, and EDN is giving them a push.

"We’re witnessing a surge in the environmental movement," says Raquel Garcia, communications associate at EDN. "Especially more awareness of global warming, the main theme of Earth Day 2007. Politicians are more aware that this is something that matters to people."

Worldwide attention to such critical issues as climate change, extinction, hunger and poverty has brought environmental concerns mainstream acceptance. "It’s losing its leftish edge," says Garcia, who adds that one of EDN’s greatest successes has been its inclusion of people of all political, cultural and faith backgrounds into a unified environmental movement. In fact, EDN’s international network reaches over 15,000 organizations in 174 countries. Earth Day is the largest secular holiday in the world.

This year is a milestone for the organization, as the Chinese government has mandated every local government and province do something in commemoration of Earth Day. It is the first time the Chinese ministry has encouraged government branches to celebrate the holiday. "We"ll have more than a billion people celebrating around the world," Garcia says.

With their "Earth Day on the Hill" campaign, EDN is asking supporters to commit to visiting their legislators in Washington between April 16 and April 20, to demand a greenhouse gas emissions cap—at 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

"We still have options," said Stephanie Tunmore, Greenpeace International Climate and Energy Campaigner. "There is still time for an energy revolution that will dramatically transform our energy system and create a carbon free economy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that keeps the global average temperature increase well below two degrees Celsius, avoiding the most catastrophic impacts. The one option that is clearly no longer open to us after this [latest IPCC] report is to continue to sit on our hands and do nothing."

In its position on climate change, EDN presents a multi-part strategy to begin to immediately reverse the effects of global warming. In addition to the caps, they include energy efficiency in all federal buildings, using our federal procurement policy to drive down the cost of energy technologies, from LEED lighting to super-efficient vehicles, and raising the minimum fuel efficiency standards for all cars, light trucks and passenger vehicles to 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2012 and 50 mpg by 2020. They’ve written their position in bold terms, saying: "America, as the largest producer of global warming and pollution, and as the richest, most powerful, most scientifically advanced economy on Earth has a moral responsibility to lead the world toward a sustainable future."

Of course, Earth Day emphasizes the personal as much as the political and there are many lists and guides and suggestions as to how to "green" up one’s life in rather simple ways. Garcia named a few actions that were far less expensive than buying a hybrid car. "It’s as simple as switching a bulb in a home or office [to a high efficiency bulb]," says Garcia, "to walking or taking mass transit, to inflating your tires properly so you burn less gas, to insulating your windows and doors."

She says that the environmental movement is poised for real progress worldwide, but EDN hopes for even greater unity to fight for significant changes on the federal level.

"Politicians need to stop washing their hands and start doing something," Garcia says. "Important social and economic changes come from the public sector, and we can do it again."

CONTACT: (202)518-0044, Earth Day Network