AP/Wide World

Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes lamented last week that the presidential contenders are all but ignoring the top environmental issues of the day.

Hayes, who started Earth Day in 1970, told 80 L.A. environmental leaders that global warming should be the top agenda item.

“There is probably no greater issue before us than changing current energy policies and halting global warming,” Hayes told the leaders gathered at Holman’s United Methodist Church in South-Central L.A. “A hundred years from now, no one will know who Monica was. What will they remember about us in 2100? For the first time ever, one species — the human species — acquired the power to change the planet and started driving four to six other species extinct every day.

“But you don’t hear about burning fossil fuels and global warming in this year’s presidential campaign,” Hayes said. “Calling for reduced use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil is the kiss of death in politics today.”

Hayes hopes Earth Day 2000, which falls on Saturday, April 22, will put some attention on important matters. He sees the history of Earth Day providing hope for saving the planet. Back in 1970, 20 million people participated in Earth Day. President Richard Nixon, already shell-shocked from the Vietnam anti-war movement, decided to form the Environmental Protection Agency to politically co-opt the environmental issue for a cheap price by combining a dozen programs from different agencies into a new agency. But despite Nixon’s conservative intentions and personal contempt for the environment, the EPA eventually developed into a real force for change.

Twenty years later, in 1990, Hayes again took up the task of organizing Earth Day, this time on a global scale. It was tough, given the costs of international communications. “We used to spend $18 a call trying to reach an activist in what’s now Azerbaijan,” Hayes said. “And it might take half a dozen calls to connect.” But Hayes and his team successfully networked with organizers in 141 countries; 200 million people participated.

In 1990, Earth Day focused on recycling in the U.S. “We decided that in addition to fighting regulatory battles with corporations and governments,” Hayes recalled, “you needed to get people to change their individual behaviors.” Earth Day organizers went after schoolteachers and their students. “We helped educate 30 million Green-guerrilla kids who all went home to bug their parents about recycling.” A 55-year-old father himself, Hayes contended, “There is nothing more powerful than the desire of a parent to be a hero to her or his children.” In 1989 only 10 percent of American cities had curbside recycling; a decade later 52 percent recycled.

This year Hayes hopes the environmental movement can build on increased global commerce and communication. Although globalization leads to increased destruction of habitat and global warming, the new global communication media also help create more awareness of interdependence. “There is something going on in global consciousness right now akin to what happened when the astronauts took the first photographs of Earth from space and people began to realize we all lived on one planet,” Hayes argued. “Even the schmaltzy New Year’s Eve coverage on CNN points to an awareness of global interdependence. And that links to awareness of global warming. People are beginning to understand that it makes zero difference if you burn a lump of coal in China or in the United States.”

Earth Day 2000 organizers plan to mobilize 500 million people in 168 countries. “In numbers there is hope,” Hayes said. “The oil and gas industries start out with 40 to 45 senators in their hip pocket and the future appears hopeless to you. But you’re out there on Earth Day and you see tens of millions of people around the world with you and it gives you hope.”

In Los Angeles, the global Earth Day agenda translates into a host of proposed changes in government policies to reduce use of fossil fuels and all forms of air and water pollution. Activists will lobby local cities, L.A. County agencies, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state to purchase zero-emission cars and buses, sign up for electricity generated from “green power” such as wind turbines, adopt “green” building codes, and preserve wetlands, wildlife habitat and other natural areas.

In pursuing these goals, the L.A. Earth Day 2000 effort will focus on issues that relate to environmental justice, defined by Environmental Defense attorney Robert Garcia as “the intersection of environmental and civil rights.” At last week’s meeting, Robin Cannon from Concerned Citizens of South Central recounted her organization’s heroic efforts in the 1980s to fight the construction of incinerators and jails in South-Central. “When we clean up a site in South-Central, we’re cleaning it up for the whole L.A. basin,” Cannon said.

Juanita Gutierrez, president and founder of Mothers of East L.A., seconded the call for unity. Worried about cancer and asthma linked to air pollution from freeways built through East L.A., Gutierrez concluded, “It is the unity that builds strength.”

The main events of Earth Day 2000 will be held in Exposition Park. The L.A. Web site, www.earthdayla.org, will be ready by the end of the month. Denis Hayes’ Earth Day Network can be reached at www.earthday.net, while a second coalition’s site is www.earthday2000.org.

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