Earth Day omens: critics say that the event is endangered

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Earth Day omens

As one of the estimated 200 million people who participated in Earth Day events around the world last year, James Ross of St. John’s, Nfld., said that he was eager to join in again. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day, which was first held on April 22, 1970, generated marches and demonstrations by environmentalists in Canada, the United States and 139 other countries. But when Earth Day arrives next week, it will apparently have a markedly changed character. Environmentalists say that large corporations, some of which were the targets of protesters last year, now are becoming involved in the event to show that they, too, are concerned about the environment. At the same time, some Earth Day supporters say that this year’s event may be relatively subdued in some parts of the country. “It took me two months just to find out where Canada’s Earth Day organization was,” said Ross, who is co-ordinator of the Newfoundland and Labrador Environment Network. “It has really gone back to a low-profile event.”

Despite that, Earth Day events were planned in most Canadian cities. The scheduled activities included a Walk for Peace in Vancouver, a festival in Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park and a parade in Montreal. In Toronto, Danny Beaton of the Mohawk Six Nations planned a three-day event called Project Indigenous Restoration, which he said would include native leaders from both North and South America. As well, Earth Day Canada, the Toronto-based organization that is co-ordinating the event, last week began surveying 250,000 households across the country to assess the impact on the environment of routine domestic activities, including the use of energy, household cleaning solvents and garbage disposal.

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At the same time, some environmentalists said that the original purpose of Earth Day is being undermined by commercialization of the event. Said Gordon Perks, a campaigner for Toronto-based Greenpeace Canada: “Instead of a day to focus on saving the planet, it has become a marketing vehicle for the companies that destroy it.” McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada said that it has contributed about $10,000 and is promoting Earth Day on recycled-paper tray-liners for the next two weeks. Other sponsors include the Ontario ministry of the environment and the Toronto-based Delta Hotels & Resorts, which provided accommodation and meeting space for organizers. As well, some firms are producing Earth Day products. The Toronto publishing firm of McGrawHill Ryerson Ltd. has published a series of grade-school teachers’ Earth Day resource guides, while Mississauga, Ont.-based International Insignia ltd. is marketing Earth Day souvenirs, including mugs, buttons and unbleached-cotton T-shirts.

Because of the commercial involvement in the event, officials at Earth Day Canada say that they have taken steps to control use of the name of the occasion. In February, 1990, the B.C. branch of the organization applied to the federal consumer affairs department to obtain trademark registration for the name Earth Day in English and French. The applications are still pending. Federal officials say that the group can temporarily claim ownership of the name because they have been using it since the previous August. Officials add that the applications have been challenged by groups that insist that no one should have exlusive rights to the name of such a widespread celebration. But Earth Day officials disagree. Said Robin Jones Martin, executive director of Earth Day Canada: “We want to keep it from bouncing so far into the public domain that it becomes a commercial event.”

Richard Gareau, president of ILC International Licensing Corp. in Montreal, the official agent of Earth Day International Inc., said that companies that want to use the name will have to pay an average royalty of eight per cent in gross sales to ILC, which will distribute a portion to Earth Day organizers for use in Earth Day activities. “I see a parallel with the Olympics,” said Gareau. “If you want dedication, you can’t just hand out the licence to anybody.”

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Some environementalists criticized the organization for seeking control over the name. Said Julia Langer, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian chapter of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth: “It puts limits on an event that is supposed to be super participatory.” Despite the controversy over how Earth Day should be run, supporters say that the event can still help to increase awareness of environmental issues. Said Avy Woo, Earth Day co-ordinator for British Columbia: “The momentum is there, but the focus now is on what we can do, not just what is wrong with the environment.” Still, the move to turn the event into a highly organized affair appeared to carry the risk that some supporters might become disillusioned — and eventually abandon the annual festival.

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