Thu, Apr 23, 2009 - Page 14 News List

Earth Day: too little, too late?

When the first Earth Day took place in 1970, American environmentalists had good reason to feel guilty

By Dana Bartholomew  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

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Ellen Mackey circles the paradise of drought-tolerant plants edging her model eco-home and pauses before its electric meter, triumphant.

Its wheel is turning backward — her 36 rooftop solar panels injecting juice back into the city’s power grid.

“I use so little electricity the DWP [Department of Water and Power] tells me I’m one of their worst customers,” said Mackey, 57, of Sun Valley, California. “If every LA homeowner set up solar ... we could severely limit our use of electricity, reduce fossil fuels, limit global warming and stop giving money to people who hate us.”

Back on April 22, 1970, the ecologist had joined 20 million Americans in a grass-roots call for environmental action they named Earth Day. They were angry that acid rain fell in the East, rivers burned in the Midwest, and Los Angeles choked beneath a thick brown blanket of smog.

Mackey joined a projected 1 billion people around the world yesterday for an Earth Day rally to safeguard Mother Earth.

Nearly 40 years after the first widespread call for environmental protection helped spawn a tangle of regulations against pollution, the air looks cleaner,

the waters appear bluer and the roads seem to draw less litter.

But despite such gains — and a global consciousness gone green — many scientists say the planet is in jeopardy. Oceans are sick. Forests are clear-cut. And plant and animal species face extinction from climate change and a critical loss of habitat.

“We all agree that we’re in much worse shape than in 1970,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, the group that organized Earth Day.

“We’ve cleaned up the stuff we can see. But it’s the stuff we can’t see — particulates in the air, toxins, the impact of persistent organic pollutants that turn male fish into female fish — that are more prevalent.

“We have a major battle ahead of us.”

‘ONE PERSON AT A TIME’

Earth Day festivals in the San Fernando Valley at the weekend featured attractions from yogis to zero-emissions cars.

But can individual contributions like curbside recycling, canvas shopping bags or native plants help avert a pending environmental cataclysm?

“It takes one person at a time,” said Stephanie Lallouz, producer of the Topanga Earth Day Festival. “It’s an awakening.”

Flashback to 1970.

Protests against the Vietnam War spilled over to outrage about industrial pollution: Oil that fouled Santa Barbara beaches. Bald eagles threatened by DDT. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland again aflame.

In response, US Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed Earth Day, the first nationwide environmental protest. A modern green movement was born.

“It sounds as if the land has gone mad, and in a way some of it has — mad at man’s treatment of his environment,” said Life magazine following the first Earth Day event.

The green-flag event helped launch the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

Since then, the smog alert has largely vanished from Los Angeles.

But environmental action did not, necessarily, make for an entirely healthier environment.

Global warming, habitat loss and hunting put one out of four mammals — including the Tasmanian devil — at risk of extinction by the end of this century, according to a 2008 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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