by Jim Britell

Because of the near total corporate control over every facet of Earth Day, it has gradually deteriorated into the kind of corporate greenwashing that gives a polluting pulpmill a plaque for printing their annual report on recycled paper. But, instead of being the one day of the year polluters can depend on to be virtually "criticism-free", it could be an occasion to give people the tools, resources and motivation to get "bad actors" to clean up their acts.

Here are practical, hands-on projects suitable for community groups and students that will educate and motivate people to solve the most important environmental problems facing their communities - instead of just gumming them.

For many years Kalmiopsis Audubon has observed Earth Day by totally ignoring it. Many grassroots, environmental-activist groups do nothing to observe this event and the area of Southern Oregon and Northern California has become known as an "Earth Day Free Zone."

The Southwest Environmental Center in Arizona boycotted Tucson's 1999 Earth Day celebration after being told that participants were not permitted to criticize the event's sponsors: Raytheon Missile Systems, Waste Management, and HBP Copper. Earth First! actually crashed the downtown parade with a banner proclaiming: "Raytheon Presents: Kill The Earth Day."

The reason many activists avoid Earth Day is that in most cities in the United States, corporations have gained control of local Earth Day planning committees through contributions of time and money. They use their influence to make sure local groups don't do anything to embarrass local polluters or corporate "bad guys". The entire event has become safely diffused, suitably vague, uncontroversial and solidly focused on promoting green consumerism. Earth Day is the one day of the year corporate polluters know they will be practically "criticism-free."

Earth Day has become an embodiment of the mindset which watches a local watershed clear-cut and destroyed, devotes volunteer weekends to replanting trees donated by the clear-cutter, then gives everybody awards for "working together". Or has groups of school children taking water samples in a damaged stream channel to collect "monitoring data," while another clear-cut begins on the ridge above them. Or gives an award to a local polluting pulpmill for printing its annual report on recycled paper. A "real" Earth Day would give people the tools, resources, and motivation to stop clear-cuts and clean up pulpmills in the first place.

Through a clever exploitation of "what YOU can do," Earth Day displaces citizens' concerns about pollution, environmental degradation, and over-development into a focus on personal behavior and personal consumption patterns. Of course all of us have to improve our personal habits, and recycle more, promote solar energy, use bicycles, and "work together." But "all of us" are not responsible for the clear-cutting of Oregon's forests, the pollution run-off from industrial pig and chicken farms in Virginia, and the pervasive non-enforcement of our environmental laws everywhere. "A few of us" are responsible for really horrific environmental problems and Earth Day could and should be the one day where "bad actors" are called out and named and shamed into cleaning up their acts; instead of the day they get environmental awards.

"Acceptable" environmental education, financed by corporations and implemented by local governments and schools (of which Earth Day is merely the most prominent example) is now dedicated almost entirely to insuring the widespread and growing concerns about the environment, pollution, over-development, and sprawl are channeled into harmless activities and dissipated.

Corporate sponsors' goals for Earth Day and all environmental education are simple: an individual company's behavior must never be singled out for scrutiny and environmental concern must never be expressed as environmental activism. If they can accomplish this, they are willing to furnish unlimited seedlings, paper bags with green writing, and funds to print brochures on how to recycle product containers that shouldn't have been produced or purchased in the first place.

g grassroots activists should never discourage activities just because they are non-controversial. It is necessary to find ways people can do things appropriate to their level of awareness and commitment to involvement. It is a good thing to advocate for more bicycles, for more recycling options, for more trees planted to replace the ones cut down, to encourage solar power, and to teach kids how to build worm farms. But, alas, saving the environment cannot occur through the implementation of these kinds of non-confrontational projects alone; any more than a drug-infested community can be cleaned up by putting up posters and having the police talk to kids in the schools. A community with pervasive drug and crime problems cannot "restore" a crime-free environment with "partnerships" with drug dealers. It must confront its criminal element. Indeed it would be a foolish community that financed a crime-prevention program with grants from drug dealers. But if it did, it would get programs to fight crime problems that are equivalent to those that Corporations promote to fight environmental problems. A community, in a serious effort to fight a drug problem, would not rely exclusively on projects that encouraged law-abiding citizens to take pledges to lead crime-free personal lives. A community that adopts solutions to either crime or environmental problems that treats criminals or polluters as "partners" and gives them plaques for their "small, but positive steps" is not stopping crime or pollution, it is just becoming an accomplice.

It is easy to separate the sincere environmentalists from the phonies in environmental action and education. Ask individuals for their help to go after a polluter, clear-cutter or specific environmental threat to your community. Sincere, environmentally-concerned folks, whatever their specific projects or interests, will willingly pitch in. Not only will the phonies not help you, they may even oppose you as disruptive or accuse you of being counterproductive to environmental progress. A friend once told me that the most virulent and ugly reaction he ever received from any of his mailings, was of forest activist literature he sent to school and community educators responsible for conducting the national environmental education program called "Project Learning tree.

The pervasive pabulum of environmental education has created a void of practical hands-on projects that address the root-causes of our environmental problems. If we are to create community-based, environmental awareness, we need to encourage practical projects that heighten citizens' awareness and not confuse them or displace their energies into harmless and ineffective busy work. We need activities and projects that can be packaged in a kit that can be sent to schools and local groups looking for alternatives to the thin gruel that presently serves as teachers' aids.

And only working activists are likely to create these projects. The following are examples of the kinds of projects any activist group can do with volunteers or students the next time Earth Day rolls around. These are hands-on opportunities that could lead to actual change in peoples' minds and in their communities. They are easy to organize, fun to do, and will provide substance for people who want to "do something" for Earth Day.


Each of these projects could be the subject of a segment in an overall program in a "teacher's kit" format which includes appropriate reference materials, examples, posters, exercises, and other audio-visual materials to raise the awareness of the participants about the sources of environmental damage. Participants will learn what threats communities face which have not yet surfaced and will begin to understand the power which corporate "bad guys" use to forestall solving problems. Upon completion of these projects and exercises, participants will have the tools and understanding to identify threats and, more importantly, be able to protect their community. These projects are intended to balance the current imbalance between well-funded, well-connected, and politically powerful "bad actors" and the average person. Here's how to begin.

1. Who owns the land in your county?
All community environmental activism starts by finding out exactly who controls the land, how they got it, and what they intend to do with it. Tax and property records are open and available to everybody. To understand the true sources of "power" in an area, prepare a report identifying the top ten land-owners in the county, how much property they own, and where their land is located. When the Coast Range Association researched all the counties in Western Oregon for industrial forest ownership, they learned that four or five corporations owned 70% to 80% of the land in those counties, that most of those corporations were out of state, and that the largest landowner was a non-US corporation! From this type of research people will learn that a corporation powerful enough to flout environmental laws is also strong enough to get its taxes assessed at reduced rates and obtain public funds to run its business also. When you get around to advocating environmental enforcement, these kinds of facts will make it easier to get your message understood and acted upon.

2. Who owns your local newspaper?
Most of what you know about your community depends on what your local newspaper is willing to tell you. Who really owns the news in your community? Count up the column inches in the advertisements to see what individuals and businesses actually pay the salaries of the editors and reporters. If your community's biggest problem is sprawl and over-development, it is useful to know what percentage of the local paper's revenue comes from real estate ads.

3. Who finances the political campaigns of your elected politicians?
If you are involved in any environmental campaign where the solutions you seek involve elected politicians, (or anyone accountable to an elected politician), you need to know who pays for their campaigns. Fortunately in the United States, contributions to politicians must be reported. Every contributor's name, occupation, contribution date, and amount is on public record for anyone to examine. For example, if your county's biggest problem is corporate pig farms and the hog industry is providing the lion's share of funds to finance state political races, you are unlikely to get anyone on the state level to take you seriously. Political contributions provide perfect pointers to the issues and position politicians will favor and the people your elected officials are responsive to.

Many contributors will be names that are unknown to you, but by looking for their addresses and common surnames, you can find spouses and children of corporate employees who use this as a way to get around the campaign limits. If any names of large contributors are unknown to you, track them down to see what special interest they represent. In general, especially for politicians and officials friendly to "bad guys," nobody donates $500 or more without some financial interest. When a corporation wants to invest in a candidate, you may find half or more of their contributions coming from their company attorneys, lobbyists, members of their board of directors, and their families.

4. Toxic dumps and pollution in your area: are they a problem?
Recently, information has become available about the location of every toxic dump and polluter anywhere in the country. If you are concerned about air and water pollution in your area, find out who is responsible for creating it. Make multi-colored maps showing the prevailing wind and surface and ground-water flows in your area relative to the known polluters and toxic hot spots. This information will be useful in dealing with proposals for plant expansions, new housing developments, and all "growth" and community health related issues. To find the names of your community's polluters just go to http://www.scorecard.org/ and enter your zip code.

5. Has your representative sponsored any anti-environmental bills?
The best-kept secret in America is the continual stream of anti-environmental bills that legislators generate. Many more bills pass in committees and sub-committees than ever become actual laws or make the news. The voting record of legislators is usually far worse than is generally understood. The continual passing of laws restricting land-use control and enforcement of endangered species acts, the defunding of environmental enforcement, and the advancing of pro-development and sprawl-type schemes, hobble regulatory agencies and keep them continually on the defensive. Most citizens are completely clueless about what their legislators are doing. Your local newspaper is not likely to tell you. Monitor the legislative committees and find out about environmental issues and about "bad votes." Write them up as letters to the editor or op-ed articles for the local newspapers in hopes you can inform your community about legislative issues that adversely impact your area.

6. What bad bills are moving through your state's legislature?
Get a list of bad bills and special interest legislation from the League of Conservation Voters, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, Audubon, the Wilderness Society and the other national groups with a presence in your state. Most likely they will know what will be coming up for a vote. Find out how a bill works its way through the legislature and where bad bills are in the process. Learn how your representative intends to vote on pending bills and publicize this information.

7. What development and sprawl is in the pipeline?
County planning department records are open to the public and there is no reason for anyone to be surprised to find bulldozers going in and destroying a forest or filling a wetland. All development plans in the US are filed and processed months, sometimes years, in advance and there are usually many ways citizens can modify or stop these schemes. But you must know at an early stage exactly what projects are being proposed if you hope to influence them. Generally planning and zoning meetings, while open to the public, draw scant public interest or attendance except for the exceptional issue of "I live next door and I don't like it." This type of input is almost always disregarded. But with a little advance research and preparation, a surprising amount of development can be successfully opposed on legal merits. Local planning and zoning issues, unlike many public land matters, may require citizens to actually go to meetings, sign in at the door and secure "standing." But if you miss a key meeting, you may find to your dismay that you lack subsequent "standing" to influence that decision.

Make lists that track the status of proposed projects, where they will be sited, and when hearings will be held. Look back at the meeting minutes to see what members of your planning commission always vote to approve bad projects and who votes against them. Find out those members' backgrounds and who appointed them and when the next vacancy will occur. If there are limitations on how many developers can serve at one time, see if these rules are being observed. Are developers and contractors getting appointed to planning boards without disclosing who they really represent? Do developers recuse themselves from decisions where they have a conflict of interest?

8. Are there threatened and endangered species in your area? Where are your wetlands?
The first responsibility of all people, and especially environmentalists, is to protect and retain the full complement of all species in viable ecosystems. To do this, you need to know what plant and animals are in danger and where they are. State and Federal agencies maintain listings and surveys for Threatened and Endangered Species. Know where they are located so you can track, and hopefully stop, any projects that might adversely affect them. Talk to your local and state fish and wildlife biologists. They always know where adverse activities to threatened and endangered species are being planned and they can tell you how to stop them, not in a professional capacity but as a citizen. Often they can not do much about these things within their agencies because of environmental enforcement being what it is today.

Get on the Army Corps of Engineers' list to be notified of any wetlands fill and removal permits. Set up tours to visit these places. The interesting thing about wetlands fill, development projects, water withdrawal permits, and a host of matters covered by environmental statutes, is that the staffs of Fish and Wildlife, state land-use agencies, and the Army Corps of Engineers are often delighted to use their statutory authorities for good ends. They just need someone or a group as justification for doing the right thing.

The primary purpose of citizens' involvement in the administrative process is often just to provide cover to agency officers who can then point to public concern or the threat of legal oversight or possible litigation as the excuse they need to actually enforce the laws. For every State or Federal official who is trying to find ways to avoid enforcing the environmental laws, there are probably ten who are desperate for any expression of citizen environmental concern to use as cover for them to crack down on some "bad guy".

If police departments were run the same way environmental regulatory agencies are, citizens would have to make written complaints before the police pulled speeders over for a warning, and lawsuits would have to be threatened against the police for not doing their job, before they would issue tickets. Anti-environment legislators lack the votes to repeal environmental laws outright, but through their control of appointments and budgets they have effectively crippled environmental enforcement process at the local, state, and federal level. Nevertheless, good laws are on the books, and can be enforced - but generally only to the extent that citizens actually demand it. Unfortunately the operative rule for most environmental and planning agencies is: " if no complaint is filed, then there is no problem to look into." Or worse: no public objection, no way for the agency to say "no."

9. Make a checklist of environmental-related contacts.
Make a list of all city, county, state, and federal officials and agency staff who have responsibility for the environment: DEQ, Army Corps of Engineers, city, county and state planning and land-use departments, State and Federal Fish and Wildlife agencies. Include a one or two sentence description of the responsibilities of each, along with a contact name, title, address, fax, phone, and E-mail. Call it the Citizens' Action List. Then when citizens want to inquire about a potential problem, they will have a way to do it. No matter what issues arise, there will be a guide in hand that shows people exactly where to inquire, who is responsible, and who to contact.

10. Who finances Earth Day in your area?
It will be hard to do anything substantive to improve things for Earth Day if the planning committee and organizers are the same people who have created pollution sprawl and over-development in the first place. They will be paid to participate and you will probably be just a volunteer. And they will have more time and resources then you do. Keep them off the planning and organizing committees in the first place. If corporate "bad guys" want to get together to help with recycling or promoting bicycles, that is fine. Just don't get real activism mixed up with their treacly feel-good "everywhere and nowhere" schemes. At a minimum make sure your Earth Day committee doesn't include any of the top 100 corporate criminals.

Nothing would further the environmental interests of the country more than one day a year when people focused on the individual polluters and the specific pollution, sprawl, and environmental degradation in their own backyards. The powerful idea "Think Globally and Act Locally" is just a mindless mantra when you are utterly clueless about what is really going on in your local community. Oh, by the way, don't expect corporate sponsors and corporate "partners" to attend any Earth Day celebration that actually points a finger at, places a spotlight on, or really deals with any specific environmental problem.

©1996 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

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