Environment: No, Uh, Cooperation in Defense of Mother Earth

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Environment: No, Uh, Cooperation in Defense of Mother Earth

Can't anybody organize this thing? How backroom feuds led to this month's Earth Day chaos.
By Bill Gifford

Nobody organizes Earth Day," former senator Gaylord Nelson said last summer to the organizing body that was mounting this month's 25th anniversary of the 1970 environmental protest. "You just have to whisper 'Earth Day,' and it happens."

Maybe so, but you have to wonder whether what's going to happen on April 22 amounts to much. At the local level, Earth Day 25 will do a decent job of fulfilling Nelson's oft-espoused vision: to inspire Woodsy Owl outpourings in cities and towns across the country. Among much else, there will be a Parade for the Planet in New York and an EarthFest in Cleveland.

But as a national event, Earth Day has always entailed a big, splashy, and issue-driven event in Washington, D.C., where it has served as a high-profile pulpit from which the major environmental groups could rally support. To say the least, the time is right for a similar happening, what with a new Republican majority in Congress that's sounding like the James Watt Tabernacle Choir. Even so, the overriding "idea" of Earth Day 25's planners seemed to be to out-hooplah 1990. Period. And many observers say that, in the rush to put on the biggest, baddest eco-bash ever, the message got left behind.

"The reason to have a national campaign is to have one coherent theme," says Denis Hayes, the 50-year-old organizer of the first Earth Day, who oversaw the 1990 celebration and briefly worked as an organizer on Earth Day 25. "For 1995, we didn't know exactly what that theme would be." The result is a snarl of conflicting agendas, angry sponsors and organizations, and a higher-than-usual level of backbiting. And despite the energy and nearly half a million dollars of corporate sponsorship cash, the hooplah will pale beside 1990's publicity supernova. In Washington, after two major sponsorship organizations essentially melted down, what's left is an Earth Day that will consist of a six-hour rock concert on the Mall, which the major environmental groups got behind late in the game to salvage a D.C. presence. Nearby, two dozen eco-minded American Indian tribes will gather, and hundreds of schoolchildren will assemble a 42-foot scale model of planet Earth. Stated theme: "Let's never call it a day."

It wasn't supposed to be this way, at least not in Bruce Anderson's mind. Anderson, 47, a former solar architect based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, had helped organize the Granite State's 1990 Earth Day events. Soon after, he enlisted Nelson for what he promised would be the ultimate blowout in 1995. Mindful of the grassroots troops, Nelson and Anderson agreed that their organization, Earth Day USA, would promote the national event while simultaneously nurturing local Earth Day movements across the country.

For a time, Earth Day USA puttered along in peace, churning out newsletters while selling the Earth Day name to almost any corporation that wanted it. AT&T, Honeywell, Pillsbury, and several others signed up. Anderson and Nelson also made plans to join forces with Project Earthlink, a consortium of 13 federal agencies, hoping to raise $20 million for the Washington-based Earth Day.

But as 1995 drew near, many local activists began to question Earth Day USA's activities--particularly its corporate fund-raising efforts, but also the workings of its board of directors. "It was these three white guys," says Pamela Lippe, a New York City organizer. "It really didn't represent the grassroots Earth Day movement at all." At a tumultuous meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, in late 1993, locals forced their way onto the organization's board, vowing to change its priorities.

That's when the trouble really started. The new board members clashed with Nelson and Anderson about what the national office should do, with the grassroots types, predictably, wanting control and funding for their efforts. Board meetings devolved into shouting matches, especially one in June 1994, at which Anderson and his allies tried and failed to eject Lippe and another grassroots repre-sentative from the board. Afterward, Nelson resigned in disgust and joined Anderson to form a new organization, Earth Day XXV, which was set up to coordinate the Washington celebration. Anderson stayed involved with Earth Day USA as well, and brought Hayes aboard last July to help retool it.

When the dust cleared, it was looking doubtful that Earth Day USA could accomplish much, hampered as it was by a six-figure debt. Hayes says the corporate sponsorship scene was a mess. Earth Day USA had spent its original wad and had sold "exclusive" sponsorships for upward of $30,000 to a dozen companies. Hayes was miffed that all the corporate sponsors were to be listed on the organization's stationery, despite the fact that some of them, he says, had environmental records that "didn't pass the giggle test." The locals, who were plenty eager to go after corporate cash themselves, insisted on making their own sponsorship deals, even if it meant undercutting national backers.

Concluding that Earth Day USA was a lost cause, Hayes resigned last September. Earthlink and the White House soon backed away from both Earth Day groups largely because of negative publicity about their corporate sponsorship. All of which proved one essential truth about Earth Day: that it's come to mean many things to many people. To organizers like Lippe, who has formed a new Earth Day Network to support grassroots efforts, it also shows that Earth Day may no longer need a huge, national, made-for-TV showcase. Her group's operative slogan: "Think locally. Act locally."

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