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Born in 1970, event has cause for celebration -- and a midlife crisis

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, with events around the globe including a rally in Washington, D.C. The first Earth Day was organized by a small group of activists in Dupont Circle.

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Environmental issues gained a foothold on campus: Williams College established one of the first environmental studies programs in 1967. Now, according to the National Council for Science and the Environment, the number of interdisciplinary environmental programs has reached about 1,235.

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Another sign of the group's impact will come Thursday, with Earth Day itself.

The organizers wanted it to be one-time event, but it has become an annual, global celebration. The first one cost about $122,000 to put on; today, the Earth Day Network, which oversees Earth Day worldwide, boasts an $8.5 million budget and a long roster of corporate sponsors, including Underwriters Laboratories, Siemens, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, AT&T Mobile and Procter & Gamble.

In 1970, students at San Jose State buried a car as a protest against consumerism. In 2010, there will be Earth Day events in Washington put on by Chevrolet and Ford.

Facing the future

The group of organizers disbanded after that first Earth Day and went on to careers in law firms, foundations, environmental groups, state government.

They look back now with pride, in both the environmental and psychological changes the day set off. "A lot of people got out of prison that day, and saw a different world ahead of them," said Fred Kent, a New York City organizer in 1970, who now runs a nonprofit.

But since then, they and other observers have seen the American environmental movement struggle to rebuild its momentum. With rare exceptions, like in the 2006 defeat of then-House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the environment rarely serves as the defining issue in national campaigns.

Public opinion polls show that, while Americans care about the environment, they generally rank it behind other priorities like jobs, terrorism and health care. And, on climate change -- the environmental movement's defining issue now -- polls show Americans seeming less concerned, not more, than in previous years.

"I don't think the environmental movement is deep enough, broad enough, to have the impact we want," said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, who, like many of today's most prominent environmental leaders, took part in Earth Day events in 1970. "We're a strong interest group, but we have yet to have the kind of political clout you really need in today's political world."

In fact, many also seem to have absorbed the lesson that the best thing for the environment is to buy things.

This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for "green" products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.

From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, "we've gone to the opposite extreme. We're too respectful of business," said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades -- and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.

"Is our environmental footprint smaller than it was in 1970? The answer is no," Rome said.

The best example, and the modern environmental movement's biggest challenge today, is climate change.

When the Earth Day Network began planning this year's events nearly two years ago, organizers thought they would be celebrating the signing of a global climate agreement last December in Copenhagen. That didn't happen. And in this country, efforts to pass a climate-change bill have been mired in the Senate. The group will hold a rally on Sunday, which League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said "will be the catalyst to pass the climate bill. That's our goal, and that's the challenge we face."

Hayes, who now runs a foundation in Seattle that works on environmental causes, says he remembers the time when the environment was an issue on which "people were winning and losing elections."

Nate Byer, the Earth Day 2010 campaign director, said that's the kind of potency activists want to reclaim. "We want to invigorate the movement this year. We're trying to guide the destiny of this movement, and make it what it was in 1970."


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