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

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home -

T hirty- 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.

jannabee@ mac. com

Chevy Chase


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