The Color of Money

I just read some incredible nonsense written by Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. Taylor notes that the major media gave Earth Day a miss (though his piece fails to acknowledge the reason why: the feeding frenzy over Elian Gonzalez). “Earth Day came and went and it seems that hardly anyone noticed,” Taylor writes, adding, “Make no mistake: There is no joy in Green-ville.”

Jerry Russell Illustration

Let me get this straight. The media infect the public with Elian fever, ignore Earth Day completely, and Taylor concludes from this that “hardly anyone noticed”? Actually, there were successful Earth Day events all over the world, and they did get a good deal of coverage from local media (apparently unaware they were supposed to be staging a boycott). I know because I celebrated Earth Day outside the Beltway, at Illinois State University in Bloomington. The hard work of a dedicated group of students and faculty resulted in a very successful celebration on the green.

Want more proof that there's life in the good old environmental movement? Take a look at green business, the subject of Jennifer Bogo's cover story in this issue. Scratch an American shopper today and you're likely to uncover an environmentally aware consumer. An incredible 70 percent of them say that a product or package's recyclability affects their decision to buy it. The 1996 “Green Gauge” by the Roper polling organization reveals that 45 percent of Americans have bought products because the label said it was environmentally safe or biodegradable. Some 54 percent could recall seeing TV commercials or magazine ads for environmental products, and 67 percent recalled seeing green labels on products or packages.

These days, U.S. consumers spend as much as $110 billion annually on products they identify as “socially or environmentally progressive.” How could green business have that kind of economic clout if, as Taylor insists, “The public's environmental commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep”?

Taylor, who claims that Americans will never give up on their luxuries even though most self-identify as environmentalists, is right to point out that sales of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are “hotter than July.” But he's altogether wrong when he asserts that “fuel-efficient cars grow cobwebs on lots and sell like snow cones in Siberia.” Honda, for instance, just increased imports of its hybrid gas-electric Insight more than 60 percent because of overwhelming demand. And, also responding to strong consumer demand, Ford announced its first hybrid vehicle—an SUV that will get 40 mpg instead of the more usual 20.

Earth Day's 30th anniversary theme, “Clean Energy Now!” looks more timely than ever. Our second feature in this issue looks at the politics of oil and the very real possibility that we will finally abandon our 100-year commitment to fossil fuels.

In 1995, Earth Day was blown out of the headlines by the Oklahoma City bombing. In 2000, it was Elian. That's bad luck for the environmental movement, but it doesn't prove anything. Trees still fall in the forest, even though Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts aren't listening. Most environmentalists I know learned long ago not to count on the media mavens, anyway. For us, and for millions of people all over the world, Earth Day was an overwhelming success.