Green for a Day, but Then Comes Tomorrow
Some Worry That Earth Day Hoopla Hides the Reality of Lagging Changes

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.

But still, the bay is not much better.

So why doesn't better participation equal bigger results?

"That's the ultimate question, isn't it?" said Elizabeth Buckman, a foundation spokeswoman. She said that part of the problem is that the task of cleaning the bay -- which would involve digging up septic tanks, cleaning farm runoff and altering storm water systems -- turned out to be harder than anyone expected.

"I hope nobody's given up," she said, "because we haven't."

Similar frustrations dog those trying to reduce the region's contributions to global warming. One group called Cool Capital Challenge has asked area residents, businesses and governments to pledge to reduce their contributions to climate change. By its deadline today, the group expects to have recorded pledges worth 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.

But challenge leader Steve Coleman said he thinks only about 20 percent of the people who made pledges are on track to keep them. They have stumbled, he said, on the daily challenges of a smaller carbon footprint, such as less driving and a colder house in wintertime.

"It's really hard for people to think of dressing differently," wearing a sweater indoors, for instance, he said. "They say, 'Oh, no, I can't do that.' We are soft. We really are just used to being mollycoddled."

Still, though, activists say they see evidence of an encouraging change in attitudes, here and everywhere. They say it's possible that, at least on the subject of climate change, some people will begin making the drastic changes that scientists say are needed to avert catastrophic warming.

In Kensington, government employee Tim Willard has gone further than most. As in: two hybrid Toyota Priuses, a house full of compact-fluorescent bulbs and, in the back yard, the beginnings of a garden so he can avoid buying food that's been trucked long distances. "The hundred-foot diet," he calls it.

"We're going to have to make changes" as climate change becomes a bigger issue, said Willard, 56, who works at the National Archives. "And I want to get started."

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