Expanded 'green' awareness buoys Earth Day 

At the age of 37, Earth Day has reached a certain level of maturity within the environmental movement — a movement now picking up major steam as citizens are beginning to take global warming seriously.

Earth Day was first celebrated April 22, 1970, and founded by Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Republican Congressman Paul Norton "Pete" McCloskey Jr., now a resident of Woodside. The event was established in a turbulent era, swirling with anger over the Vietnam War and galvanized by Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," revealing the effects of pesticides on the environment.

Letters were sent to college student-body presidents, encouraging students to celebrate the new environmental holiday.

"In 1970, the word ‘environmentalist’ was attributed to little old ladies and kooks," McCloskey said. "The idea was to get kids involved to bring pressure on their parents and others."

McCloskey and Nelson’s plan worked. Not only was the first Earth Day a hit, but those same students rallied against 12 senators they called "the dirty dozen," and within weeks seven of those senators — most of them anti-environment — had been voted out of Congress.

Suddenly, fellow members of Congress began coming to McCloskey, asking him how they could pay more attention to the environment. By 1973, Congress established or amended three major pieces of environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

And, at home, some people’s habits began to change, particularly with respect to recycling and energy consumption. However, getting people to make deep and sustained efforts to reduce their environmental impact has remained difficult.

"In the ’70s, we weren’t thinking that we could lose cities to climate events," said David Assmann, deputy director of the San Francisco Environment Department, referring to Hurricane Katrina. "There’s still a disconnect between people’s concern and making the changes that really need to happen. It’s time to look more holistically."

Katrina, coupled with Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth," are now motivating cities and citizens in the way "Silent Spring" did in the 1960s. This month, the Sierra Club is urging every resident and agency to reduce carbon emissions by 2 percent per year for the next 40 years, according to spokeswoman Kristina Johnson.

"To reach our goal means we must start right now to make different, better decisionsabout the energy we use at home, at work and as a nation," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said.

Doing so could mean everything from using cleaner-burning cars and electricity to protecting wetlands habitats and natural forests, known to absorb excess carbon dioxide emissions. One major champion of wetlands along the Bay is Redwood City resident Ralph Nobles, who successfully led referendums in 1982 and 2004 to defeat development proposals on Bair Island and at Peninsula Marina, respectively.

Even locally, interest in environmental causes comes and goes.

"The people who know the importance of it stick around," Nobles said. "But the large majority don’t — unless some issue is in front of them. I think that’s slowly changing as people are more and more aware of the environment and how badly we’re treating it."

McCloskey is more optimistic, particularly if the environmental movement recruits the younger generation once more.

"There are a lot of reasons to put this on the front burner, and hopefully there has been a reawakening," McCloskey said. "Earth Day is a lesson that if kids get involved, they can change the course of political action."

Bay Area efforts

» Water: Water conservation in the Bay Area has increased substantially since the last drought, which lasted from 1987 to 1992, according to Tony Winnicker, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Although the population rose 17 percent between 1986 and 2007, water demand dropped 1.4 percent.

» Electricity: Household energy usage in California has remained flat over the last 30 years, despite a constantly increasing population, according to Melissa Mooney, spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Conservation programs during those decades have reduced carbon emissions by 125 million tons.

» Gasoline: Despite increasing gasoline prices and the burgeoning popularity of energy-efficient vehicles, gasoline use has risen in California. Total gallons sold, including jet fuel, topped 14.5 billion in 2000. By 2006, gasoline sales rose to 15.9 billion, according to the California Energy Commission.

» Recycling: San Franciscans are now diverting 67 percent of their solid waste from landfills into blue recycling bins and green composting/yard-waste bins, up from 52 percent in 2002, according to Mark Westlund, spokesman for Norcal Waste. In San Mateo County, cities have boosted recycling rates from an average diversion rate of 35.6 percent in 1999 to 70 percent in 2004, according to Recycleworks.

Earth Day events

Saturday

» San Francisco: PG&E will lead park cleanups at Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadows and at Visitacion Valley’s Greenway from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Work also takes place at Half Moon Bay State Beach. www.calparks.org

» San Francisco: The San Francisco Zoo will offer free admission to visitors who drop off an old cell phone, computer, television, printer or other electronic device for recycling. The offer continues through Sunday. (415) 753-7174

» San Francisco: People’s Earth Day 2007, at India Basin Shoreline Park. 11 a.m. (415) 820-1456

» Millbrae: Earth Day park cleanup and fair. Cleanup 8 a.m. to noon; Lion’s Park, Millbrae. Fair noon to 4 p.m.: activities, gardening demonstrations and entertainment, Millbrae Community Center, 477 Lincoln Circle. (650) 259-2339

» Redwood City: The Marine Science Institute hosts "Earth Day on the Bay" all day, starting at 8 a.m., at 500 Discovery Parkway. (650) 364-2760, ext. 16

» Redwood City: Earth Day Spring Cleanup Day focuses on sprucing up Redwood Creek, Little River Park, Stulstaft Park and the port area. Meet at 8:30 a.m. at Redwood City’s Public Works Services Building, 1400 Broadway. (650) 780-7300

» Redwood City: Earth Day program at Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; located east of Interstate 280. (650) 599-1306

» Pacifica: Free Earth Day program at San Pedro Valley County Park with bird watching and wild flower hikes, brochures on volunteerism, county parks and information booths. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 600 Oddstad Blvd. (650) 355-8289

Sunday

» San Bruno: Earth Day celebrated at Junipero Serra County Park with volunteer project constructing a native plant garden. 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; 1801 Crystal Springs Road. (650) 589-5708

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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Beth Winegarner

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