What I Saw At Earth Day 2000

CEI sent Kendra Okonski to roam the Mall in Washington, DC, on Earth Day 2000. Here is her dispatch from the front lines of the professional environmental movement’s assault on progress and freedom.

Energy: We’re running out of it, we use too much of it, we’re using the wrong kind, and we’re causing global warming. That was the message of Earth Day 2000 on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on Saturday April 22. As Earth Day Chairman Leonardo DiCaprio suggested, "There is a global emergency going on. The Earth is heating up, and everyone’s future is at risk." Earth Day spokespeople and volunteers were dead certain of the world’s impending doom from global warming and an environmental crisis.

Leo—who reportedly drives a gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe SUV—invited everyone to join "in sending a strong message to our governments that now is the time for action to prevent violent changes in our climate." That’s why Earth Day events took place in front of the Capitol building—so that politicians would get the message from American celebrities, music stars, and the environmental establishment that we need to be saved from ourselves. Consistent with its "Clean Energy Now!" message, Earth Day 2000 on the National Mall was powered (its organizers claim) entirely by "clean" energy. (One wonders if it was "clean energy" that caused the "noise pollution" of this event provided by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, Keb’Mo’, and others squawking about the state of the earth.)

The festivities included educational displays sponsored by environmental groups and "green" businesses, each with a clean-energy agenda to promote. One of the alternative energy tents featured contraptions for generating energy from the wind. Advocates claim wind is a renewable, "non-polluting" source of energy (except when the wind doesn’t blow). It’s ostensibly the answer to all of our energy needs—except for those who live in areas with little wind, or where it’s not possible to have enough windmills (apartment buildings, for instance). According to them, the enormous quantities of land, iron, and concrete necessary to produce this energy are not a trade-off.

The National Audubon Society’s booth was located in the very same tent. Don’t windmills kill birds? we asked. The Audubon workers agreed and noted that they did have an anti-wind energy campaign in California—because windmills would kill endangered California condors. But there appeared to be no consensus among the windmill vendors about the issue. We were assured by one promoter that "our windmills spin fast, so they don’t kill birds." The promoter at the next booth assured us that "our windmills spin slow, so they don’t kill birds." Our current power-generating technology kills many birds as it is, said another.

Among the more interesting participants at the Earth Day 2000 festivities were the Twelve Tribes, located in the "Human Spirit Tent" on the Mall. During a long discussion with two of their members, a 17-year old girl and an older man, I learned that this group lives in small communities separate from the rest of civilization (I was encouraged to visit, and perhaps even join, their commune). They shun technology. Incidentally, they do have a website (http://www.twelvetribes.com) which warns that "If we don’t say something soon, then the earth will!" So much for eschewing modern technology.

In another tent, Friends of the Earth displayed a poster of a "strawberry fish" to call for a moratorium on genetically modified foods. Genetically modified foods are deemed too "risky." What about, for instance, rice that has been modified to provide vitamin A, which would help prevent blindness? No, even that is bad, according to the person at their booth, because it doesn’t fit into native and traditional diets. So it’s apparently too risky to help the developing world? Indeed.

Squads of Earth Day 2000 volunteers, outfitted in red t-shirts for easy recognition, roamed the Mall. Some petitioned people to sign the "Clean Energy Now!" petition; some passed out free bottled water to the crowd. Overall, they seemed wholly naïve. One asked me to sign a card to oppose the building of roads in national forests. What’s wrong with building roads in forests, especially those that are politically managed? Maybe she was right, but then again, she wasn’t sure, and she didn’t convince me she knew anything about the matter at all. She mumbled something about saving the earth and before asking, "I guess you’re not interested in signing this card?"

A US Forest Service employee strolled down the Mall with Smokey the Bear, the USFS mascot for fire prevention (though the USFS itself is moving towards a "let it burn" policy). They passed out stickers and Smokey stopped for photos with kids. I asked the employee if we build fewer roads on the national forests (and indeed, destroy existing roads), would that mean that we can’t fight fires as effectively? The USFS employee said he didn’t know.

Speaking of mascots, Greenpeace polar bears passed out stickers of kissing polar bears that said "Make Love, Not Oil," to oppose Arctic oil drilling. Fliers read: "Stop the Polar Meltdown." Global warming means the ice caps are going to melt, we’ll have droughts, heat waves, and extreme weather events if we don’t stop using oil and carbon-based fuels. Of course, weather happens in spite of man (and we can’t even accurately predict it a few days ahead of time)…and there’s no good reason to believe that weather will stop occurring if we stop using carbon-based fuels.

A few questions were not addressed at Earth Day’s festivities. Namely, is global warming happening for sure? If yes, is man causing it? Will global warming produce only negative effects? Will we really be able to stop global warming with policies like the Kyoto Protocol? The usual suspects in the environmental lobby (the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Earth Action, Ozone Action, Friends of the Earth, Worldwatch Institute, etc.) grow offended at the suggestion that global warming might not be a big threat, because then their alarmism would be futile.

So what is the true meaning of Earth Day 2000? Well, it’s an attack on our lifestyles. No matter what the issue—urban sprawl, population growth, auto-mobility, air pollution, biotechnology—the environmental establishment is dissatisfied with progress and change. They admonish us for our affluence, even though various activists yesterday conceded that wealth is better for the environment than poverty. They say they care about the world’s poor, but their good intentions don’t materialize into the things that the poor really need: energy, medicine, sanitation, infrastructure, education. More fundamentally, developing countries need the political and economic freedom to create affluence, so that they can appreciate environmental aesthetics just as Earth Day’s green activists do.

This isn’t to say that environmental conservation isn’t a venerable cause. We should indeed find ways to creatively address environmental problems and risks—but this requires the freedom to do so. Earth Day 2000’s celebrities, musicians, and activists called for less energy instead of more, less technology instead of more, and less affluence instead of more for the people who need it most—all in the name of what they maintain to be a "crisis." Instead of promoting their utopian idealism, they should have celebrated (and encouraged) the progress humanity has made in overcoming the problems, risks, and challenges that we face every day, and the prospect of even more in the future.

Kendra Okonski, a policy assistant at CEI, can be reached at [email protected].