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Earth Day 2005: Contrived Commercialized Co-Opted

Earth Day 2005: Contrived, Commercialized And Co-Opted

While the Bush Administration, the US Army, right wing think tanks and corporate polluters celebrated, environmental issues were given short shrift
By Bill Berkowitz

On April 22nd, thousands of people in hundreds of communities throughout the U.S. celebrated the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. Originally started during the turbulent days of anti-Vietnam War protests through the initiative of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day has devolved from a day of reflection about environmental issues to a series of amorphous and unfocused public celebrations, many of which are corporate sponsored.

The Bush Administration, the US Army, right wing think tanks and a bunch of corporate polluters all got in on the action this year. Team Bush set up a Web site to both observe Earth Day and to promote its version of volunteerism. At, Team Bush claimed that Earth Day is "a time to celebrate gains we have made and create new visions to accelerate environmental progress."

Scott Silver, the executive director of the Oregon-based environmental group Wild Wilderness, is an old-school activist who got involved in environmental matters more than a decade ago when he and the organization's co-founder, Dale Neubauer, opposed two proposals that would have permitted commercial yurt-to-yurt ski touring within, and adjacent to, the Three Sisters Wilderness. For the better part of the last ten years, Silver has been has been monitoring and tracking the growth, lobbying expertise, and political influence of the recreation industry, and the increasing trends toward the privatization of America's public lands.

In late April, I caught up with Silver and asked him about Earth Day and its meaning in era of Team Bush's "common sense" environmentalism.

Bill Berkowitz: This year is the 35th Anniversary of Earth Day. What was its original mission?

Scott Silver: Forty odd years ago, a core group of visionaries took notice of the extent to which the activities of man were impacting our planet. Earth Day was created in response to what were then new understandings and developing realizations about how the world worked. It has often been said that the first Earth Day was a transformational event which helped give birth to the environmental movement and led to a sustained period of elevated consciousness about the Earth and our relationship to her. Perhaps that's true: many suggest that is only fabricated lore.

BB: How did Earth Day become co-opted and commercialized?

SS: It wasn't long before Earth Day was taken over by those companies creating the most pollution and doing the greatest social and ecological harm. Within 10 years of that first Earth Day, oil, gas, nuclear energy and chemical companies were sponsoring the event and by the end of the millennium, Earth Day was largely meaningless. With each passing year, activists who were not on the payroll of corporate interests denounced the event using increasingly harsh words. And whereas I was one of those critics, on Earth Day 1998, Dale Neubauer, the co-founder of Wild Wilderness, and I were honored as local Earth Heroes. We continued to man our booth at every Earth Day fair until 2003, when we concluded that even locally the event had lost all significance. By then, we had been working globally for several years.

BB: What will be the Bush Administration's Earth Day messaging?

SS: The Bush Administration and his corporate allies will frame Earth Day as a time for all Americans to do their part to help the planet. They will encourage us to recycle more, waste less water, etc. They will encourage us to plant seedlings, save odd scraps of aluminum foil and compost our table scraps. They will frame the issue in a way that puts the responsibility upon individuals to do more. The will frame the issue saying that corporate interests are working on the technological fixes that will allow Americas to continue to drive their Hummers. Mainly what they will do is make certain that the blame is never laid at the very footsteps most deserving.

Let's be straight about this: George W. Bush is the most flagrantly anti-environmental president this nation has endured since the 1920s. The Bush Administration's environmental policy is not simply a matter of neglect of the Earth; it is effectively raping, pillaging and whenever possible, privatizing, this nation's natural resource heritage. There is nothing the president has done that can be called "Earth friendly" but, come April 22, he will likely use the occasion to tell the American people how petroleum companies can expand our nation's energy supply by drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in an environmentally conscious way. Likewise, he may speak of someday fueling non-polluting automobiles, powered by clean hydrogen made from dirty, dangerous and costly nuclear energy. As for the issue of climate change, I doubt he will have much to say. If he believes climate change is happening, it would not surprise me if he and his neo-con advisors have a military solution planned for dealing with that problem. Frightening thought, isn't it?

BB: What role do corporations play in the constellation of Earth Day activities?

SS: In the weeks leading up to Earth Day and especially upon the day itself, corporations will cloak themselves in earthy images in much the same way President George W. Bush dressed up to inform the world that the Iraq Mission was accomplished. On Earth Day some of the world's worst polluters will boast of their environmental achievements, as I suppose our President will boast of his "Filthy Skies" and "Unhealthy Forests Initiatives." A great many environmentalists will, as usual, get in on the action. But I suspect that many more will give it a miss.

One participant this year will be the US Army with their brand new Earth Day catchphrase, "Sustaining the Environment for a Secure Future." Last year, according to the US Army Environmental Center Web site, the Army claimed that it celebrated Earth Day at approximately 200 major commands, installations and organizations in the continental United States, Hawaii, Korea, Japan, Italy and Germany. It has created an 'Army Earth Day 2005' poster which uses that slogan and portrays a soldier armed to the teeth, standing guard over the planet.

BB: Are their environmental issues the Army fails to talk about? What are some environmental consequences of military actions?

SS: The Army's Earth Day messaging basically focuses the public's attention upon those relatively insignificant, generally painless, and sometimes fun things that we all can do to improve the environment. If we were to believe the Army's messaging we might conclude that the ills of the world can be solved if each of us were to build a compost pile, recycle our soda cans and plant another bush in our yard.

What the Army is not saying is that our insatiable quest for oil is destroying both political and physical landscapes. They are not saying that their use of depleted uranium in military ordinances is poisoning tens of thousands of innocent persons, including US Army personnel. They make no mention that the Department of Defense has sought immunity from the Clean Air Act, Superfund Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and several other keystone environmental laws. They most certainly make no mention of the fact that the US military is amongst the worst environmental offenders on Earth.

BB: Is there anything positive to be gotten from celebrating Earth Day?

SS: Speaking as an environmental, wilderness and anti-corporate activist, I see no reason to participate in this year's celebration. Unfortunately, most of the big-green organizations go along with the party line. That's part of the deal they struck in the 1970s when they agreed to become wards of Philanthropic foundations in exchange for keeping their message narrowly focused and respectful of the corporate interests who were paying their way.

The environmental movement would be well served by adopting a new rallying point, by doing some much needed internal house cleaning and by applying a large dose of fresh thinking. I believe that the time has come to combine a great many social, labor, and environmental causes within a single strong Progressive Movement. My opinion is that the iconic Earth Day event has succumbed to corporate takeover and it is time to move on.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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