Power for the People

The Biggest Earth Day Ever Demands "Clean Energy Now!"

Denis Hayes is back. The menace he’s stalking this time: dirty energy, which contributes to global warming and befouls the air in the world’s cities.

The last time Denis Hayes organized Earth Day, in 1990, 200 million people turned out—and a recycling craze swept America. Before that, Hayes and then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) made history by getting 20 million people to rally for clean air and water for the first Earth Day in 1970, a groundswell credited with spurring Nixon-era passage of the landmark Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and formation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Hayes has returned for a third time to put on what promises to be the world’s biggest environmental event ever. Earth Day 2000—the 30th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22—is expected to rile up 500 million people on all continents and in more than 160 nations. People from hugely divergent backgrounds all seem to be getting involved somehow, from Chicago college kids devising ways to avoid trash problems at what they hope will be the first sustainable rock concert, to Afghani refugees learning about better wastewater disposal in their temporary refugee camps.

Working for a Watershed

Will the 2000 Earth Day change history, as did its predecessors? From schoolkids to priests, lots of people have their own hopes about that, and have already started the Earth Day countdown with intriguing energy-saving projects sprouting up around the nation. Given that every time we turn on a light switch, car ignition, lawn mower or electric can opener we contribute to the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere, this Earth Day message hits close to home for consumers as much as for politicians and businesses. The event’s rally cry: “Clean Energy Now!”

Environmental deep thinkers are saying that the next big trade and business revolution could be sparked if the U.S. and other nations would only ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty hammered out in Kyoto, Japan, to get countries to agree to take specific steps to reduce the output of greenhouse gases. In a not-so-subtle nudge to federal legislators, Earth Day festivities host and actor Leonardo DiCaprio is to walk on stage at the nation’s main Earth Day event in Washington, D.C. wearing a T-shirt that reads simply, “Kyoto.”

Meanwhile, Hayes, a mild-mannered man who seems an unlikely ringleader, is on a mission to combat global warming, person by person. He is pushing the Earth Day 2000 Clean Energy Agenda, a document developed by a consortium of such major environmental organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council. It demands what some call “The Four Cleans”—clean cars (see cover story this issue), clean power, clean air and clean investments.

Consumers should be able to buy sport-utility vehicles and pick-up trucks, for instance, that are subject to the same air pollution standards as cars, adherents say. New cars and trucks should get an average 45 miles per gallon by 2010 and 65 miles per gallon by 2020. And instead of spending tax dollars subsidizing coal, oil and nuclear power, there should be a fourfold increase in federal investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency over the next five years. A good goal, they say: By 2020, at least one-third of the nation’s energy should come from the sun, wind or other renewable sources (excluding hydro power, which has caused damage to wild rivers and fish populations).

And while we’re at it, say Earth Day organizers, let’s clean up the air by setting progressively tighter pollution limits on power plants. A current loophole lets old coal-fired plants pollute much more than newer plants. Organizers are asking the public to jump aboard the Clean Energy Now! campaign by endorsing it at www.earthday.net or signing up at Earth Day events. “No issue is more critical to our future than global warming,” contends John Adams, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and board member of Earth Day Network. “That’s why our campaign focuses not only on the problem of global warming, but also on the solution—clean energy.” “We know how to solve this problem. Global warming is something we know how to solve,” adds Hayes, who was a Harvard Law intern working in the office of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) when Nelson tapped him to organize the first Earth Day in 1970. Now, 30 years later, Hayes is chair of the Earth Day Network, based in Seattle.

“At this point, all we need is the determination to do it,” says Michelle Ackermann, Earth Day Network spokesperson. “Let’s not get held up by what elected officials will or won’t do, “Let’s just start doing it. If we want more fuel-efficient cars, we can start asking American car manufacturers to go ahead and make those fuel-efficient cars available to us.” (Japanese carmakers don’t need that message: They’re selling both the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, highly fuel-efficient “hybrid” cars with both gas and electric motors, on the U.S. market this year.)

A Broad Coalition

Changing the world, one person at a time, is an appealing idea that so far has attracted at least 3,200 green-minded, religious, government or other organizations worldwide to jump aboard the Earth Day 2000 bandwagon. Taking to heart the idea of being God’s good stewards of the Earth, the Reverend Sally Bingham hopes to entice Episcopal congregations all over California to switch to green power by Earth Day 2000, just as her Grace Cathedral in San Francisco has.

“The cathedral is saving money,” says Bingham, who is also co-director of a program she started called Episcopal Power and Light. The cathedral shaved at least 10 percent off its power bill with energy-saving efforts such as installing sensors that automatically switch off lights when a person leaves the room. Too warm? She opens windows instead of turning on the air conditioner. Regular lightbulbs are gone. Cool-burning, energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs have taken their place. Plus, renewable energy costs one to two percent less than regular electricity, Bingham says.

When she preaches on her bully pulpit, though, cost savings aren’t her overriding concern. Encouraging the new green power industry also creates jobs. This way, she says, people “walk a little lighter on the land. You wouldn’t love God and destroy what God created…Our parishioners can save money, save the world and create green jobs, all by making a phone call.” At first, however, Bingham adds, “We certainly did have lots of skeptics—people we called the Doubting Toms.”

Global warming isn’t an issue, some of these skeptics counter. Others simply resist change. Still others fear that a breakup of the electricity industry would result in a confusing consumer morass, like the telephone industry. But Bingham—who takes her consciousness-raising slide show from church to church (just as a compatriot does in Pennsylvania churches) has ready replies. “I’ve only had one case where people decided they didn’t want to switch power companies,” she says, adding that 25 Bay Area churches switched by December.

Chicago Mayor Richar

d M. Daley is preaching from a bully pulpit of his own, backing efforts to clean up the city’s dirty air and testing ways to lessen the heat island effect by greening rooftops—including that of City Hall. By Earth Day, 21,000 different plants, including two oaks, are to take root atop the 11-story building’s black tar roof. Most are low-maintenance groundcover plants rooted in four-inch-deep soil. Butterflies are expected to eventually flutter amid shrubs and prairie grass planted in deeper soil. The city expects to save $4,000 a year in heating and cooling costs from the 20,000-square-foot garden since plants are better insulators than merciless black tar.

According to Hashem Akbari, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, Chicago could save even more money, considering the square-foot cost of $10 to $20 to plant gardens, if it simply painted the roof white, which would cost 60 cents to $1 per square foot. Cheaper yet—listen up, homeowners—the city could wait until it’s time to reroof, then order a white roof instead of dark. “At that time, you won’t pay anything extra,” Akbari says.

But pleasant green rooftops make a statement in a high rise-dominated downtown. Greenery also does a better job insulating during fabled blustery winters and reducing stormwater runoff (easing the load on sewers), argues Bill Abolt, Chicago’s environment department commissioner. Plus, “it makes the point about air quality—cities are getting hotter.”

Business considerations are driving Chicago’s zest to slow down its smoggy contribution to global warming. Air pollution is so bad that the federal government calls the Windy City a “severe non-attainment area for ozone,” which translates into bigger hurdles for industries that want to relocate to the city. The price of compliance—including hiring consultants and other costs—is as much as 50 times higher, and takes at least twice as long, if a factory wants to relocate to a brownfield in Chicago instead of head to virgin land just outside the zone, says Abolt. Hoping also to shake an unhealthy, smoggy image to attract more white-collar jobs, the city is working on several ideas to clear the air—including a lawnmower buyback program to remove notorious carbon-belching polluters. Residents ideally would switch to easy-care natural landscaping.

Creative Approaches

Yet, Earth Day is about empowering everyone, big and small, and an amazing array of folks are jumping aboard with unusual projects. Take the tens of thousands of Clevelanders who will learn en route about Cuyahoga River pollution on a walk/run that ends at a huge EarthFest at the zoo.

But Earth Day is no longer solely an American event. Around the world, celebrations take unique cultural coloration. In Great Britain, for instance, the Rainforest Foundation-UK is taking over a commercial space in central London for a renewable energy fair, complemented by exhibits that tie together environmental and human rights issues. The Conservation Foundation is organizing Australia’s energy-related event, while New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is focusing on recruiting women to work on natural resource conservation projects.

Perhaps because it’s one of the world’s leading carmakers, Japan will create a car-free zone in Tokyo on Earth Day, with parades and fairs around the reknowned Rainbow Bridge. Earth Day Japan is campaigning to end production of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the country.

In India, a women’s group will use solar panels to create crafts on Earth Day. Tel Aviv, Israel was the site of a huge event in 1999, and Green Action there promises that the 2000 festival will be much bigger. In Jordan, Queen Noor herself is heading an Earth Day celebration coordinated by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. And in Hanoi, Vietnam a bird-watching club is being organized.

Some 30,000 students will plant trees in Mexico City, and schoolchildren in Brazil will decorate United Nations buildings with woven cloth gathered from other classrooms around the world. In environmentally threatened Madagascar, a concert will be coordinated with a capital city cleanup and the release of a special film. In Ghana, a three-day workshop will focus on medicinal plants, conserving fresh water, renewable energy and desertification. And in what is surely a sign of our times, Afghanis in refugee camps will learn about wastewater management, an important topic for people living in crowded conditions.

Greening Schools

Passion is evident. Erin Porter did an environmental audit of the photography lab at her Pittsburgh High School as part of her environmental club’s schoolwide green audit for Earth Day 2000. Porter searched to see: Is the fixer recycled? Are chemicals properly handled? “The teacher was slightly hesitant at first,” says Porter. But for naught. If the green survey were a report card, she says, the lab would get an A. What Porter really noticed, however, was how she started to view chemicals back home. Now, she says, “I’m much more conscious of what I’m dumping down the sink.”

Students across the country are sleuthing around schools to see if they’re using the right lightbulbs for energy efficiency or recycling to save landfill space. They’re doing it with help from Earth Teams, a program based in Contra Costa, California, that provides teachers relevant fun projects for what they already need to teach while jumping aboard the Earth Day theme.

Kids can chat online about what they’re learning and get materials at www.earthteam.net. “It is going beautifully,” Earth Teams founder Sheila Fish says, happy about the demand. “It is almost more than I can handle because people are loving the project.” Kids don’t consider it painful work. Instead, she says, “They’re eager.”

“What they really like is the fact that it’s tied to other students at other high schools,” notices Dan Hanel, science coordinator for Pittsburgh Unified School District.

Not that the Clean Energy Now! message of Earth Day is a slam dunk, an event certain to change all our lives. While nearly nine out of 10 Americans say they are concerned about the nation’s environment, the question is whether they’re willing to make changes personally. Roper’s “1998 Green Gauge Report” found that consumers at both ends of the green scene—the activists and the unconcerned—say they won’t pay a premium for greener goods. Activists who use more Earth-friendly products don’t think they should pay extra to do so, and people who couldn’t care less about the environment don’t see why they should pay more for products, according to the poll reported in American Demographics magazine. All this suggests that products had better be competitively priced if greenhouse gases are to be curbed.

“We’re not out of the woods,” says David Brower, 87, dean of America’s modern environmental movement. Fearing that he spent his years at the helm of the Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute and Friends of the Earth simply “slowing down” destruction instead of stopping it cold, Brower nonetheless says we may be on the verge of an initial turnaround. The best sign, he says, is the new alliance of

labor and environmentalists protesting publicly together at Seattle’s World Trade Organization meeting in November. “That started something that I think is catching power,” says Brower, who predicts the WTO protests will be looked on as a watershed event. Echoing the battle cry of the Alamo, he now tells people: “Remember Seattle.”

Organizers hope people will also be saying, “Remember Earth Day 2000”—a happier, let’s-put-on-a-show kind of event. Hayes sees Earth Day as a catalyst to encourage people to incorporate what they’ve learned during the event in their daily lives throughout the year. As a guy who rides his bike to work and uses compact fluorescent bulbs at home, Hayes practices what he preaches. He figures changing the world starts with each of us. Him. You.

Asking what one thing a person could do to most help lessen the amount of greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere, Hayes and actor DiCaprio were mulling over a few of the thousands of ways people impact the Earth. “The obvious answer is buy the right car,” said Hayes. Honda’s new two-seat, 80-mile-per-gallon Insight, for instance, will sell for less than $20,000. And for slightly more money, there’s the four-seat, 60-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius, which claims to cut gas consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions by half, plus slice pollutants by 90 percent.

DiCaprio already knew about hybrid cars, and by the end of the conversation, he’d promised to buy one within the year. DiCaprio made his intentions clear in an online chat last November. “You fill it up at any service station [and] it gets 60 miles per gallon,” he told Yahoo fans. That’s a start. For Hayes, that’s one person down, millions more to go.

Sally Deneen is a freelance writer and author living in Seattle, Earth Day’s ground zero.