Dirty Work to be Done

The concept of Earth Day has come a long way. Unfortunately, the distance it has traveled has robbed it of its relevance, left it a shadow of its original intention.

Earth Day has become a day for neighborhood cleanups and corporate-sponsored events, for cute T-shirts and company literature.

For instance, in South Brunswick, N.J., where I live, Earth Day has become a major event. Sponsored by the Division of Recycling, the day features bus loads of kids and adults trekking about town, cleaning up trash in parks, along roads and anywhere else the detritus of life has been deposited.

It's a rather magnificent sight--if a bit sad. A hodge-podge of kids and adults, school classes and Scout troops, men's and women's rec league teams and the general array of good Samaritans rolling down their sleeves, slipping on the gloves and doing some seriously dirty work.

South Brunswick is not alone. Towns and organizations throughout the region and the country sponsor similar cleanups, an indication that--at least during the latter part of April--Americans are interested in making their world a little more livable.

It would be easy to take from this picture a sense that all is well. But that would be a false picture of the world, one that confuses a Sunday cleanup program for political activism, that equates the occasional trash collection with the brick-by-brick building of a sustainable planet.

Often more than 100 people participate in the South Brunswick Earth Day festivities, with waste collection totaling as much as 100 30-gallon trash bags and often more. That's a lot of garbage, which means there are still a great many people out there who have no compunction against tossing their McDonald's wrappers out car windows or dumping their trash in secluded areas.

It's a lamentable situation, especially given the change in the public's attitude toward issues of pollution and land development that have taken place over the last 30 years. But a willingness to recycle and to teach grade-school kids the basics of conservation are not enough.

The corporate world has co-opted the green message, with companies selling themselves and some less-than-green ideas as environmentally friendly:

* Monsanto is pitching genetically engineered seeds, saying they will produce a larger quantity of hardier crops, but that may have a long-term impact on species diversity.

* The development industry is peddling the concept of wetland banks (builders fill wetlands in one area in exchange for creating new wetlands on a specified property elsewhere in the region) as a way of conserving land. The banks, however, encourage suburban sprawl by allowing builders to erase the natural limits wetlands place on individual properties.

* The incinerator industry, faced with a problem disposing of its ash, is proposing that it be used to pave roads and fertilize farms. The industry says the toxins in the ash are burnt off and will not leach into soils or groundwater, but there remain questions about is safety.

And there are dozens of other industries and corporations willing to talk the green talk, but not walk the green walk.

A widespread movement is necessary to keep the pressure on the world's political and corporate leaders to ensure that the progress that has been made continues and that we can alter the direction in which we seem to be heading.

"There is a need for more bold, direct action," says Anna Maria Calandra, founder and director of One Clean World and author of three books on environmental issues. She said attending meetings and writing letters to the editors of local and regional papers and to local legislators is useful, but there is a need to be "more assertive so that the power gets back into the hands of the people."

Which brings me back to Earth Day.

Earth Day grew from the political movements of the 1960s, according to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, the former governor of Wisconsin and counselor of the Wilderness Society.

"I read an article on the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins, which were spreading on campuses all across the country," he wrote in the January issue of the Progressive. "It suddenly occurred to me: Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment?"

The event was announced in September 1969 with the objective "to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out if its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda."

Nelson points out that 20,000 people participated in the first demonstration in April 1970, including 10,000 grade schools and high schools, 2,000 colleges and 1,000 communities.

"It was truly an astonishing grassroots event," he wrote. "The people cared, and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to join in a nationwide demonstration to send a big message to the politicians--a message to tell them to wake up and do something."

And things have changed--though the change has been incremental and it has led to a corporate backlash that has resulted in political backsliding. In recent years, Congress and the state legislatures have weakened water and air pollution controls, rules governing the cleanup of toxic sites and have moved to allow businesses to use public lands for cattle grazing, mining, oil drilling and other environmentally intrusive pursuits--all in the name of profit.

New housing developments are rising up in rural areas, destroying farmland and forests, chewing up our aquifers and eroding our topsoil. We have fallen in love with the sports utility vehicle and the luxury car, meaning more gas is being used and more pollution is being dumped into the air.

"We are pursuing a self-destructive course, fueling our economies by consuming our capital--that is to say, by degrading and depleting our resource base and counting it on the income side of the ledger," Nelson wrote. "That, obviously, is not a sustainable situation over the long term. The hard fact is that while the population is booming here and around the world, the resource base that sustains the economy is dwindling. It is not just a problem in faraway lands; it is an urgent, indeed, a critical problem here at home right now. We are talking about overpopulation, deforestation, aquifer depletion, air pollution, water pollution, depletion of fisheries, urbanization of farm land, soil erosion, and much more."

He points out that across the globe, these biological systems "are under varying degrees of stress and degradation" and "as we continue to degrade them, we are consuming our capital. And, in the process, we erode living standards and compromise the quality of our habitat."

It's time we reverse this trend, and direct action is the best approach. Groups across the country have been engaged in direct challenges for years, waging guerilla insurgencies against all manner of environmental dangers, some with great success.

This is what the environmental movement--and Earth Day--needs to be about. Neighborhood cleanups are useful, but in order to blow the cobwebs out, we need a real strong gust of fresh air.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in central New Jersey.

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