Green for a Day, but Then Comes Tomorrow

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

This is the good and bad of Earth Day, 38 years on: Almost everybody seems to be doing -- or buying -- something to lighten their burden on the environment. Twisty light bulbs. Hybrid cars. At Whole Foods, "bananas with a conscience."

But it can still seem as though nobody is doing enough.

Nationally, climate change has become a galvanizing political issue. But real-world changes still lag: U.S. emissions are projected to rise, not fall, over the next two decades.

In the Washington area, disconnects between environmental participation and environmental results can appear in frustrating microcosm.

On Earth Day today, area activists can celebrate grass-roots support for the Chesapeake Bay, the D.C. region's top-10 rank in hybrid-car ownership and its 1.9 million energy-saving compact-fluorescent bulbs.

But the Chesapeake is not getting cleaner. Cars in the area are still driving more miles. And, no matter what its light bulbs look like, the region is steadily using more electricity.

"On the surface, there's this glowing green thing going on," said Kathleen Rogers, president of the District-based Earth Day Network. "But beneath it, there's something a lot murkier and darker."

Today, environmentalists will mark Earth Day with a rally against climate change at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, among other events. Thousands showed up in the rain Sunday for concerts and speakers on the Mall.

Since the first Earth Day, in 1970, environmental laws have helped clean up rivers across the country, including the once-abysmal Potomac. The banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s helped bring back the bald eagle, which has now re-colonized Washington's urban core.

But even with "green" becoming nearly as common as "lite" on supermarket labels, some environmental historians say they wonder what it is all adding up to. They worry that the activity will give the illusion that major environmental problems are being solved -- when, in fact, many remain intractable.

"Earth Day today is really much more like Mother's Day, or maybe Martin Luther King Day," said Adam Rome, a professor of history at Penn State University. "It's a once-a-year day to think about some things or maybe do a little something," he said, not the call for major life change and political action that it was in 1970.

Here, the dynamic has played out with the region's best-known environmental cause: the Chesapeake Bay. The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation had 5,700 members in 1978. Today, it has more than 190,000, most of them gaining membership either through donations or volunteer work.

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