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Published on Saturday, April 22, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Earth Day's Radical Roots
Like so many once radical notions, Earth Day has lost its rough edges. Indeed, on the 30th anniversary of the annual celebration of the environment, the real meaning of the day is pretty much obscured by corporate sponsorships and the debate over Leonardo DiCaprio's attempts to "interview'' President Clinton.

Earth Day's fate can be compared with that of Martin Luther King Day.

King was a radical, a man who in his last years embraced democratic socialist ideas and was killed as he prepared to launch a "Poor People's Campaign'' designed to force America to address the issue of income inequality. Yet, his "day'' has become an excuse for politicians and corporate executives to burnish their political correctness credentials -- while, at the same time, maintaining the economic wrongs King sought to eliminate.

So it goes with Earth Day. Created as an outgrowth of the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins of the late 1960s, Earth Day was designed to build a movement. Instead, it tapped a nerve so powerful that it leapt right over the movement moment to the legislative stage. Suddenly Congress was passing a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act and funding an environmental protection fund.

Environmentalism went from the fringe to the mainstream so rapidly that even the man who came up with the idea for Earth Day, former Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, had a hard time keeping up with his creation. All too quickly, Earth Day became, like King Day, an excuse for politicians and corporate executives to strut their stuff -- and for real politics to be pushed aside.

Earth Day is no longer threatening -- unless you count the prospect of having to listen to a movie star attempt to explain his environment ethic to the president. And that's too bad.

Earth Day should be a day that polluters and pols fear like no other, a day when they are called to account for their failure to preserve and protect the air, the water, the land.

Earth Day should be the day when citizens -- not corporate executives -- reassert the demand that Nelson made at the start:

Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all other living creatures. An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without discrimination, without hunger, without poverty, without war.''

2000 The Capital Times


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