Why I Won't Be Celebrating Earth Day This Year . . .

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thirty-seven years ago, a day to celebrate our planet and reflect on its problems sounded like a great idea. Hippies were passé; earth mothers were the new, cool thing. The message was simple: If we only knew what we were doing to the planet, we would make things better.

Time has proved that the message of Earth Day -- that awareness will lead to action -- was naive.

A few years ago, Earth Day organizers, sensing the stakes are even higher now, revived the day, and it showed up again on community calendars around the Washington region and the nation. While most people are still in bed, a few dutiful individuals get up to remove trash from our slimy waters or go to "fairs" to buy energy-efficient light bulbs and wind energy offsets. They are the choir, the sad truth of Earth Day, the only ones who show up.

Earth Day would be a true agent of change if it were the other way around -- a time of penance for those who have overspent their environmental capital by commuting in gas-guzzling cars from, say, Manassas to Capitol Hill or living in huge, power-devouring houses in Loudoun, Howard or Calvert counties. What if the fertilizer maniacs in Fairfax, Prince George's, Montgomery and Arlington were required to plant bay grasses before being allowed to eat crabs? Or what if those Northwest Washingtonians with second homes at the beach or in the mountains could get there only by bus?

It won't happen, of course, because when protecting the planet became the job of environmentalists, the rest of the world felt free to look the other way, to consume without consequences.

Environmental groups became special interests and, over time, got frustrated, were co-opted by industry or simply disappeared. All that was left to do was write small membership checks to organizations that publish glossy magazines (not necessarily on recycled paper); eat organic foods; and drive hybrid cars -- good things, but not real change makers.

As I see it, the majority of us who don't care enough to alter our way of life have all the power. Our lifestyles have accelerated global warming and left us with cars and houses -- on which we spend the bulk of our consumer dollars -- built in accordance with the obstinate perversity that energy consumption doesn't matter. Much as adolescents do, we believe that we can have things without paying for them.

My friends who drive SUVs and live in oversize houses are not bad people. They work hard, consider themselves altruistic and see their lifestyle as a logical reward for their labors.

Now we, as a global society, are finally facing the music and learning how difficult the solutions will be.

Seven days before Earth Day 2007, I have decided to no longer call myself an environmentalist, because to do so requires that I play by a different set of rules. As the one who assiduously recycles the baseball team's empty water bottles and arranges the carpools, I have become an unpopular reminder of environmental sacrifice that sometimes embarrasses my friends and seldom enlightens them. But that is not the point. The point is that, by being the environmentalist, I let others off the hook. They play along: I am a tree hugger; this is my thing.

So I'm taking Earth Day off. Maybe I'll drive to Great Falls and look for eagles and wildflowers. Or I'll drive really far to find some clean air -- and not feel guilty about the gas I'll consume. Or maybe I'll offer a silent prayer of apology and reflect on what it might take to regain hope, even against the odds.

-- Janna Bialek

Chevy Chase


© 2007 The Washington Post Company