Too Hip for Her Own Good? : Suddenly, Mother Earth has become the chic cause. With Earth Day's 20th anniversary approaching on April 22, some activists fear the barrage of media and marketing hype may harm rather than help the environmental movement. Can the Earth survive Earth Day?


Outside, searchlights sweep the sky. Inside, the glitterati listen in giddy anticipation. "Ladies and Gentlemen, in the category of Hippest Heavenly Body in the Galaxy, the winner is . . . the Planet Earth!!!!!"

OK. It hasn't come to that.

But almost. Suddenly, the Earth and eco-awareness have become a super-chic steamroller, flattening rap, Quayle-bashing and co-dependency as the national phenomenon most worthy of media fixation and celebrity cause-hopping.

For folks who grew concerned about the fate of the planet back before Rachel Carson published the pivotal 1964 alarum "Silent Spring," the surprising spate of attention is encouraging, exhilarating, vindicating.

But some also worry that as save-the-planet pandemonium builds toward a frenzied crescendo on April 22 with the gala 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a grumble will be heard across the land: "Enough, already! What's next?"

Having had her 15 minutes of glory, will Mother Earth go the way of all fads?

People who have been slaving to make Earth Day happen are appalled by such questions.

But some also intimate a nagging fear that the public may indeed overdose on the E-Day publicity blitz, making it harder than ever for serious environmentalists to get their urgent message across. Earth Day may just prove counterproductive.

"There's no question" that some people will use the hoopla surrounding Earth Day as a reason to dismiss the environmental crisis as an issue and personal responsibility as a solution, former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D.-Wis.) concedes.

But Nelson, a creator of the original Earth Day in 1970, recalls that the same thing happened then: "Anyone who didn't want to do anything (about environmental problems) called it a fad. Those people don't give a damn anyway."

Because of that first Earth Day, though, "there are a hell of a lot more people who give a damn now," Nelson says.

Comparing Earth Day, 1970, to Earth Day, 1990, however, is like comparing a back-yard football game to the Super Bowl.

Most observers trace Mother Earth's meteoric rise to fame to summer, 1988, when the ozone hole seared a startling image of environmental destruction in American minds and Atlantic waves washed bloody syringes up around the ankles of influential East Coasters.

As a result, in January, 1989, Time magazine put the Earth on its cover as "Planet of the Year." Three months later, on March 24, the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo on the waters of Alaska.

And as 1990 rolled in, everyone starting wanting a piece of the eco-action.

In January, the cover of Harper's Bazaar declared an "Earth Alert" and featured models who "support efforts to preserve our planet and rely on natural ingredients to maintain their own good looks," as well as mini-profiles of eco-activists such as Olivia Newton-John, the United Nation's first honorary environment ambassador.

In March, Vogue magazine breathlessly followed suit, addressing the environmental crisis, in part, with a spread on hats made of moss and birch branches.

Working Assets Money Fund recently introduced a special Earth Day IRA, and alert entrepreneurs nationwide are translating the new love for Mother Earth into a spate of products sporting conspicuous (and often suspicious) "Earth Friendly" or "Biodegradable" labels.

"We're knee-deep in environmental hype," declared Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert Humphrey III, rolling a grocery cart filled with newly sprung "environmental" products before a recent public forum.

His exhibit included a deodorant that claims to have "environmentally lighter propellant."

The publishing industry has embraced Earth Day by printing enough books to topple a forest. The list of more than 50 titles tied to Earth Day begins with "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet," escalates to "The 365 Ways to Save Our Planet Calendar," continues with "Save Our Planet: 750 Everyday Ways You Can Help Clean Up the Earth" and "The Green Lifestyle Handbook: 1001 Ways to Heal the Earth."

Housework adviser Heloise also penned "Hints for a Healthy Planet."

Meanwhile, Hollywood has latched onto environmentalism with all the enthusiasm it had for "thirtysomething" clones a few seasons back. Several series, including "The Golden Girls," have woven environmentalist threads into their plots. Two networks are planning ecological "A-Team" type series. CNN is launching a cartoon ecology crusader named Capt. Planet, and a new troop of Muppets will soon jump into the Earth-saving fray.

People who call the Earth Day office in Palo Alto to take "the Personal Green Pledge" are greeted by the voice of TV star Howie Mandel. At least 3,000 Earth Day events are scheduled nationwide, the capper being a two-hour television special featuring Bugs Bunny, Chevy Chase, Kevin Costner, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams and E.T. the extraterrestrial.

Environmental activists learned long ago that to compete with the stories of the day they needed to give their intricate issues sex appeal.

As Doug Moss, editor of the environmental magazine E, puts it, "They had to dress up in chicken suits and jump off bridges to get someone out to write about ocean dumping."

Now editors and producers who believed that the public couldn't stomach more than a few yearly sound bites on the environment are ready to shovel stories at what they see as an insatiable appetite.

But some activists quietly worry about what is known as the MEGO--"My Eyes Glaze Over"--phenomenon.

Two weeks after Earth Day, will editors yawn at stories about clear-cutting of rain forests? Will people find pollution passe?

"That's a real fear many of us have--that the public will get all hyped up and then sort of collapse," said Samuel P. Hays, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of "Beauty, Health and Permanence--Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985."

"I think the real problem with (the media) is that environmental issues very quickly move from dramatic emotional episodes to complex hard-nosed problems. . . . I think it's hard for the media to make that shift," Hays said.

Some environmentalists also are worried that the current climate of happy-faced hype, which affords anyone an opportunity to jump aboard the Earth Day bandwagon, will undermine the movement's credibility.

Nelson is not among them. In the past few days, he has received calls from people in Washington, Oregon and Delaware warning him that "business is co-opting Earth Day," he said. Corporations with rotten environmental policies are using the day to give themselves a patina of legitimacy, the callers complained.

"I told them, 'Well, most businesses have bad records, and obviously some are just after a public relations gimmick,' " Nelson says.

But he also told them that "there are a lot of business people now who are concerned, and we ought to let those sinners repent. If every church in this country refused to admit sinners, they'd all be bankrupt."

Nelson thinks Earth Day will raise people's awareness so high that they can no longer be snookered by companies that try to hide sordid deeds with slick public relations.

Pollsters and trend watchers do report a dramatic surge in ecological awareness. A much quoted Gallup Poll, for example, indicates that 76% of American consumers think of themselves as environmentalists.

Anxiety is rising across the board, says Tom Miller of the Roper Organization. "The needle is definitely in the red danger zone."

What the pollsters don't know is whether this concern will make people change their ways.

Earth Day 1990 chairman Denis Hayes is unequivocal in his belief that they will.

"We want to change the world," he says. "We want to replace the conspicuous consumption of the '80s with conspicuous frugality."

Of course, not everyone will eagerly abandon the growth economy that has made them so comfortable.

"Lots of people's oxes are going to get gored," says analyst Hazel Henderson, an economics consultant to 30 countries. Her "Politics of the Solar Age" preaches an ecological restructuring of the global economy.

But if Earth Day persuades people to vote in environmentally responsible ways, a major change in the way the U.S. economy works may not be far behind, she believes.

She knows, however, that the forces that focused the spotlight on the environment can also snap it off.

"The media are notoriously sheep-like," she says. As publishers and producers start getting pressure from advertisers they may abruptly "declare that the crisis is now over."

They'll do so at their own risk, warns Sen. Tim Wirth (D.-Colo).

"Politics is driven in part by a sense of outrage," says Wirth. He thinks America's sense of outrage about the environment has almost reached "critical mass"--a point at which major changes start to occur.

The public, Wirth says, is beginning to demand more sophisticated coverage of issues such as the recent weakening of the Clean Air Act. Even with its star-studded aura, Earth Day will increase the public's outrage about such environmental setbacks, he says.

But not all activists are happy with the glitzy way eco-awareness is being packaged.

Environmental journalist Sara Pacher does not begrudge the celebrities who attract attention to the Earth's woes. But she does think that the growing trivialization of those problems may have a backlash.

As a matter of fact, Pacher and others say that for some time the staff of Mother Earth News, herself included, resisted pressure to replace its traditional nuts-and-bolts environmentalism with celebrity-oriented features and "fluff." ("They refused to let us use the word manure " in the magazine.)

Two weeks ago, after completing the magazine's April 20th anniversary issue, 15 staffers were laid off and the owners moved the magazine from North Carolina to New York City. According to the new editor, the old staff had "lost touch."

But the final effort to which they contributed will receive a send-off befitting the eco-trend era.

In his introduction to the issue, the new editor announces that on Earth Day, the entire contents of the magazine--including messages from Jimmy Buffet, Pope John Paul II and Ann Landers--will be broadcast into space from a transmitter on Mt. Everest, to "travel through the universe forever."

E2: Personal Stories from the Environmental Front

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