In 1990, thousands of demonstrators, opposing corporate sponsorship of 20th anniversary Earth Day by companies such as Dow Chemical, attempted to shut down Wall Street. Police cordoned off the protesters to allow the bird-flipping traders to get to work. "Get a job," the traders jeered. But one of the traders, in a symbolic move, decided to jump the rope and join the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers. But the demonstrations didn't herald lasting change.
Now, 35 years later, Earth Day dawns on an America that is either uncaring or oblivious or in despair. When I polled my friends, most admitted that they plan to celebrate alone with a walk in the woods this year. And yet, one said, this is the one holiday that really honors what it means to be alive.
(Illustration by Patterson Clark - The Washington Post)
Earth Day Activities|
CHILDREN'S CONCERT -- Friday at 7:30. Singer-songwriter Billy B. performs songs about the beauty of the natural world. $2; maximum $5 per family; ages 2 and younger, free. Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 506 South Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. 301-258-6350
HOWARD COUNTY CELEBRATION -- Saturday 8 to 4. Bird walk at 8, tree planting and trail maintenance from 9 to noon; picnicking from noon to 4. Free. Mount Pleasant Farm, 10520 Old Frederick Rd., Woodstock. 410-465-8877.
MERIDIAN HILL CLEAN-UP -- Saturday 9 to 2. Graffiti removal, weeding, trash pick-up and more. Free. Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, between Euclid, 15th, 16th, and W streets NW. 202-462-7275.
CONSERVATION FESTIVAL & CLEANUP -- Saturday 9 to 3. Stream and park clean-up, tree and shrub planting, hikes, fishing demonstration, children's activities and appearance by Gaithersburg City Mayor Sidney A. Katz. Free. Izaak Walton League of America Conservation Center, 707 Conservation Lane, Gaithersburg. 301-548-0150 Ext. 236.
"E-CYCLING" -- Saturday 9 to 3. Drop off your old electronics, batteries, cell phones, aluminum cans and tennis shoes for recycling. Free. Rock Creek Park's Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Kennedy Place, NW. 202-645-8245.
GREENBELT CELEBRATION -- Saturday 10 to noon. Plant native species at the Wetlands Educational Facility, see hybrid cars and tour the Public Works Department. Buddy Attick Park, 555 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt. 301-474-8004.
PATUXENT WILDLIFE REFUGE CLEAN-UP -- Saturday 10 to 3. Remove non-native invasive plants and other eco-friendly tasks. Free. National Wildlife Visitor Center, 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel. 301-497-5760.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY CELEBRATION -- Saturday 11 to 3. Environmental information, crafts, family entertainment, energy-efficient vehicle and bus tours of the recycling station, sponsored by the Division of Solid Waste Services. Field in front of 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville. 240-777-6400.
FREDERICK FESTIVAL -- Saturday noon to 4. Information booths, food samples, crafts and more, sponsored by Community Commons and the Common Market. Free. Baker Park Bandshell, Second and Bentz streets, Frederick. 301-663-3416.
NAVY FESTIVAL -- Thursday 10 to 2. Environmental display booths, alternative fuel vehicles, music by the Navy Band Cruisers, children's activities and more. Free. Navy Memorial, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 703-418-3417.
ALEXANDRIA CLEAN-UP -- April 30 from 9 to 1. Help clean up the area along Four Mile Run Park; supplies, snacks and T-shirts provided. Free. Shuttles take participants to sites from Cora Kelly Elementary School, 3600 Commonwealth Ave., Alexandria. 703-838-4844.
Earth Day has become an exercise in optimism. It's an easy way to do a little public relating: Set up a booth at the festival, hand out fliers and pretend that the people who really need your messages are not at home watching big-screen televisions and fertilizing lawns and manning leaf-blowers. How many loggers who clear-cut first-growth trees stumble upon Earth Day celebrations and go away converted? How many people inspect the hybrid car on display and make plans to buy one? How many quit shopping at chain stores?
Last month the United Nations released its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year study involving more than 1,300 researchers in 95 nations. Humans have altered ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any other period in history, the study found. More than 60 percent of "ecosystem services," the natural processes required for life on Earth, have been degraded. Ten to 30 percent of animal species are threatened with extinction.
"It seems sort of absurd to have one day a year devoted to something of this magnitude," McKibben told me.
Reducing the severity of the crisis is possible. It will require correcting our course -- urgent and substantial changes in our government policies and personal practices in the coming years. Even as you read this, visionaries are laying foundations for the transformations that will be demanded of us before Earth Day achieves another 35 years. By then the era of inexpensive and easily accessible fossil fuels will have ended, and we will face a transition to alternative energy. We are a nation of entrepreneurs, scholars, cooperators and inventors. We believe in progress, we know how to change. We are people of courage and open-mindedness. We have a long history of educating ourselves and banding together to fight injustices -- taxation without representation, slavery, the oppression of women. We have always risen to the challenge of serving humanity, rather than our own desires.
I, for one, am calling for a real Earth Day. We'll have a paid national holiday. Nobody goes to work. Here's how we'll celebrate: We won't get into our cars, not at all. We won't buy anything -- no planet-shaped chocolates, no strands of green lights, no big blow-up replicas of Earth to tether in our front yards. We won't buy so much as a cup of coffee. We'll start our latter-day victory gardens and call them independence gardens. We won't turn on the television all day. We will force ourselves to be still long enough to think about what our actions and our inactions are doing to the Earth. We'll watch the songbirds leading spring northward.
A native of the coastal plains of southern Georgia, Janisse Ray is a naturalist and radio commentator. "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood" (Milkweed, 1999; paperback, 2000) won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction and the Southern Environmental Law Center Award. Her essays and poems have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Audubon, Hope, Natural History, Oprah, Orion and Sierra. Her third book, "Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land," has just been released (Chelsea Green, 2005). Ray is writer-in-residence at Keene State College and lives in Vermont.