The Battle for Planet Earth

During her two years in the redwood tree dubbed "Luna," Julia (Butterfly) Hill became a much-admired symbol as she sacrificed personal comfort to a higher cause. To protest the clear-cutting of ancient forests, she endured 90-mile-per-hour winds, El Nino downpours, almost constant damp and cold, and deprivation (she lived mostly on raw fruits and vegetables, and used a plastic-lined bucket for a toilet). But during her time in the 6-foot-by-8-foot plywood aerie in California's Humboldt County, which left her barely able to walk when she finally came to ground last December, the whine of the buzz saws never ceased. Pacific Lumber Corp. left the 1,000-foot-tall Luna standing, as well as 2.9 acres around it. But the rest of the company's redwoods, scattered across 10,000 acres, were fair game.

And so Hill has become a symbol of a different sort, one that has special resonance as the country approaches the 30th anniversary of Earth Day this weekend. Saving a tree only to lose a forest, her protest against logging forced activists to confront a disturbing possibility: that individual actions on behalf of the environment pale beside the actions of big business and big government.

"Well-meaning people frequently focus on personal responsibility, partly because they see it as a way of doing something, without looking at how effective it's going to be," says longtime environmentalist Barry Commoner of New York's Queens College. "It's an escape on their [environmental groups'] part." No matter how many of us switched from aerosols to roll-ons, the CFCs that powered spray cans continued destroying the ozone layer--until the manufacture and use of these chemicals began to be phased out worldwide by the 1987 international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. Millions of us might walk to the mailbox rather than drive, but the effect on emissions of the greenhouse-gas carbon dioxide (which comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas) is minuscule compared with the effect of more than 68 million SUVs on American roads. A single decision by the chairman of Royal Dutch/Shell has a greater impact on the health of the planet than all the coffee-ground-composting, organic-cotton-wearing ecofreaks gathering in Washington, D.C., for Earth Day festivities this weekend. Obviously, if 1 billion people in the developed world stop driving, switch to solar energy and replace old appliances with superefficient ones, greenhouse emissions would plummet. The question is whether that mass action, or comparable steps by a few businesses and governments, is easier to bring about.

The message of the first Earth Day--April 22, 1970--had a certain innocence, imbued with a certain can-do-ism: individual actions would roll back the damage done to the planet. In that spirit, some 20 million people participated in Earth Day events, such as dumping five tons of roadside trash on the steps of a West Virginia courthouse to protest litter, or burying a car in San Jose, Calif., to protest the air pollution produced by a nation of drivers. The emphasis on the individual was picked up in best sellers like (notice the pronoun) "50 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet," as well as in public-service campaigns that hectored us to carpool, bicycle to work, recycle, boycott rain-forest wood, buy only "dolphin safe" tuna.

Earth Day 2000--April 22--reflects the new ethos. The theme of events that will be staged by more than 5,000 groups in the 185 participating countries is climate change and the threats--rising seas, shifting agricultural zones, more extreme weather--that a warmer world poses. The Earth Day 2000 slogan, "Clean Energy Now!," calls for replacing energy sources that produce heat-trapping greenhouse gases with energy sources (solar electricity, wind power) that do not. Although some of the most ecorighteous have unplugged their homes from the electric-utility grid in favor of solar panels on their roofs and fuel cells in their basements, at the rate that is happening there will be orange groves in Anchorage, Alaska, before the greenhouse effect is wrestled into submission.

If there was a single case that opened activists' eyes, it was one with a hamburger inside. Environmentalists had been protesting the use of McDonald's "clamshell" boxes because of the ozone-destroying CFCs used in their manufacture. Customers were exhorted to boycott the Golden Arches. But--surprise!--burger lust beat save-the-planet fervor hands down. The Environmental Defense Fund saw a better way, and began working with McDonald's to design a box that would keep the burger hot but not harm the ozone layer. In 1989 McD's phased out the Styrofoam clamshell in favor of paperboard.

That success began to redirect some green activism. Environmental Defense (it recently dropped the "Fund") has worked with UPS to use more recycled paper and plastic in its packaging. (Recycling was a nonstarter as long as there was no market for the newspapers we all dutifully bundled and the plastic bottles we put outside.) Conservation International has advised Starbucks on growing organic coffee plants in Mexico, and the Gap uses organic cotton. Environmental Defense is back with McDonald's, finding ways to cut energy consumption by at least 10 percent at every Mickey D's.

Whether such moves are driven by a company's desire to be a good corporate citizen or to gain economic advantage by draping itself in green bunting is hard to say. There is no question that some "greenwashing" is going on. Bayernwerk, a Bavarian utility, began selling "Aqua Power" last year when Germany began to let customers choose their electricity supplier. Bayernwerk markets Aqua Power as 100 percent green, renewable, hydroelectric energy. But any consumer who signs up gets power from the same mix of sources as before: hydro, gas, coal and nuclear. Nothing changes except some accounting, and there's no net benefit to the environment. There is a benefit, though, to Bayernwerk, which charges more for Aqua Power and has been swamped with orders for it.

Greenwashing takes many forms. "Companies often advertise themselves as environmentally friendly even though they might have some pretty hideous environmental records," says Jill Johnson of the group Earth Day 2000. California's PG&E, the utility that settled out of court after the real Erin Brockovich accused it of polluting groundwater, runs pro-environment ads. But PG&E is due in court in November on charges of polluting wells in a second California town. "PG&E has a very good environmental track record," says spokesman Greg Pruett, citing recycling and waste reduction. Weyerhaeuser, the timber company, cuts old-growth trees in Canada but trumpets the 100 million tree seedlings it will plant this year.

Overall, the greening of corporate America is real and hasn't been as hard to achieve as some activists imagined. That is especially true for greenhouse gases and climate change, the focus of Earth Day 2000. "Now there's more recognition by companies that there may be an economic advantage to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases," says Paul Portney, president of the think tank Resources for the Future. More and more companies are changing the way they heat and light their buildings and design their factories to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as well as their energy bills. (Energy-efficiency upgrades can save a company roughly $1 per square foot of office or factory space every year.) The reductions often exceed those called for in the 1997 international agreement on greenhouse warming called the Kyoto Treaty, whose goal of reducing greenhouse emissions 7 percent from their 2000 levels is deemed so threatening to the economy by many oil, coal and chemicals companies that the White House does not dare to submit it to the Senate for ratification.

Corporations from Xerox and Compaq to Du Pont, 3M and Toyota have realized that green behavior can mean black ink, says Joseph Romm, director of the nonprofit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. Royal Dutch/Shell is reducing emissions of greenhouse gases at its plants by 2002 to a projected 25 percent below the levels of 1990, to 100 million tons. For an equivalent annual cut, every car in New England would have to be taken off the road for five years. Du Pont is cutting its greenhouse emissions 40 percent from their 1991 levels by this year, to 58 million tons. Anyone who dutifully unscrewed the old incandescent light bulbs and subbed in compact fluorescents, scowling every time the &%# things dim, can ponder this: Boeing's lighting upgrade reduced its use of electricity for lighting 90 percent and saves 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. Some 500,000 people would have had to change a light bulb to achieve that. Companies that can't squeeze out another single kilowatt hour of energy savings in their own facilities can bankroll someone else's. Shaklee, the consumer-products company, and Interface Inc., a $1.3 billion floor-covering manufacturer, are paying to upgrade school boilers from coal to natural gas, which produces fewer greenhouse emissions. "There has been tremendous change in the corporate world," says Gaylord Nelson, who as a senator from Wisconsin conceived the first Earth Day.

None of this is to say that individual decisions do not matter. They do: the lemming-like movement from cars to SUVs has resulted in some 200 million more tons of carbon-dioxide emissions every year than if everyone had stayed with his nice little Taurus. But individuals can exert a greater force for environmental good by pressuring corporations and governments than by lecturing their Navigator-driving friends. Or by spending two years in a tree.