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The Selling of the Planet, 1990


By Julie E. Peters

IT'S 1990 and environmental awareness is trendy. Earth Day is a "hot topic." But current environmentalism has become a widespread fad by sacrificing rigorous standards of conservation. The issues being discussed and the changes being demanded are the kind that nearly everyone can support. They are moderate. In return for money and publicity, Earth Day organizers have focused on creating a sense of festivity rather than on changing government policy and corporate behavior.

Earth Day 1990 is not Earth Day 1970. In 1970, people gathered in Washington to demand that corporations and government wake up to the urgency of environmental issues. Denis Hayes led environmental activists, saying, "We will not appeal any more to the conscience of institutions, because institutions have no conscience. If we want them to do what is right, we must make them do what is right.

"We will use proxy fights, lawsuits, demonstrations, research, boycotts, ballots--whatever it takes," he told the crowd gathered for the first Earth Day celebration.

That was 20 years ago. Today, environmental problems are worse than ever. Even more than in 1970, we need to do "whatever it takes." Judging by participation, Earth Day 1990--with 58 million people attending 3000 events nationwide--has the potential to mobilize a powerful constituency of environmentally conscious citizens to fight for the goals of the first Earth Day.

BUT they won't, because Earth Day has been sold. In order to create a multi-million dollar, coast-to-coast celebration, Earth Day organizers have chosen to rely on the support of corporations, cooperating with those who continue to destroy the planet even as they contribute to a celebration of conservation. Consider:

. In Portland, Ore., the organizing committee of Earth Day is cosponsoring local festivities with "primary resource extractors" such as timber and mining companies. In return for the companies' sponsorship, the committee has agreed to soft-pedal the environmental issue most important to the Pacific Northwest--resource extraction. In a final irony, Portland's Earth Day Fair will be held at the headquarters of PG&E, the owner of the nearby Trojan Nuclear Power Plant.

. Earth Day Alaska is being sponsored in part by ARCO, which destroys Alaskan land and wildlife in order to drill and transport oil and gas.

. TEAM, the name of the public relations front group for Pacific Lumber, is first on the letterhead that lists the organizations sponsoring Earth Day in Menmdocino County, Calif. Hewlett-Packard, one of the Californian companies most responsible for depleting the ozone layer, is also a major sponsor of California's Earth Day festivities--it's CEO sits on the national Earth Day board.

. In perhaps the most Faustian bargain of all, Earth Day St. Louis has accepted $15,000 from Monsanto, one of the largest manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides in the U.S. Before it jumped on the Earth Day bandwagon, Monsanto was better known for its abandoned PCB dumps in Indiana.

When Earth Day committees accept money made at the expense of us all, they improve the public images of companies that do not uphold the environmental responsibility that Earth Day preaches.

Some of these corporations may be sincere in suporting the current faddish environmental movement, with its emphasis on individual efforts such as recycling and conserving water instead of strict environmental regulation. But these companies remain as obstacles, not allies, in the struggle for a comprehensive, sound environmental policy to regulate the environmental impact of corporations.

Fundraisers for Earth Day say that their job would be impossible if they forced sponsoring corporations to meet any kind of environmental criteria. They exchanged money for ideals. Pragmatists might call this a compromise. Cynics call it a sell-out.

SELLING out on environmental issues means settling for compromises that we can't afford to accept. Last year students in Dunster House tried to persuade dining hall administrators to stop using disposable plastic plates and dishes at breakfast. Lunch and dinner at Dunster are served on reusable plates, we argued. Why can't breakfast be, too?

The dining hall manager's excuses ranged from saccharine ecological concern ("It would require so much water and energy to wash the dishes that it's better to use disposable plates,") to naked self-interest ("We don't have the employees to wash the dishes, and it would cost $40,000 to hire someone new."

This year, students again tried to negotiate for washable plates. Again, no luck.

So we decided to compromise. We reached an agreement with the dining hall administration to recycle the disposable plates. Superficially, it seems that we have made progress. But now that the recycling program has started, it will be even harder to persuade the dining hall to switch to reusable plates. Recycling should be an intermediate stage. Instead, it seems to be the final one.

In Dunster House, we settled for half a loaf. We compromised. Usually, a compromise represents the solution most beneficial to both parties. But in the case of environmental conservation, a compromise hurts both parties, because both parties share the destiny common to all inhabitants of the planet. Compromise is not a long-run solution. Eventually, environmental activists will have to overcome past agreements.

OF COURSE, not all compromises are the same. Temporarily settling for recycling in Dunster House seems less a problem than compromising the lofty ideals of Earth Day in the interest of a mega-celebration. (On Saturday, for example, Earth Day organizers threw a huge bash at Jamaica Plain, where hundreds of people gathered to enjoy a barbecue served on disposable plates, cups, knives, forks and spoons.)

The motto of Earth Day, "Every Day is Earth Day," implies that Earth Day is an ideal after which to model all other days. If Earth Day is the best we can do, our planet is in a heap of trouble.

The gap between being environmentally conscious and being environmentally conscientious is huge, and Earth Day did a poor job of bridging that gap. Promoting awareness of environmental problems is important, but more important is carrying on the struggle to enforce environmental responsibility among the institutions that perpetuate these problems. In this sense, the compromises of Earth Day are a total disappointment.

Julie E. Peters '91 is a Biology concentrator living in Dunster House. She conserves water by flushing the toilet infrequently.

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