Earth first

In Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, city centers will be completely closed to cars, to draw attention to air pollution. Ditto the central streets of Sydney, Australia. And — while Asheville’s streets will still admit vehicles on Earth Day 2000 (Saturday, April 22) — our city’s 30th-anniversary celebration of this day set aside to promote environmental awareness and activism does promise to educate and motivate, as well as entertain.

The first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — brought together more than 20 million Americans nationwide. The event was founded by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and organized by environmentalist Denis Hayes — a Harvard grad student who dropped out of that hallowed hall to become Earth Day’s national coordinator. Folks hit the streets that year, lobbied Congress, and helped launch what was to become the modern environmental movement. The momentum gained from Earth Day 1970 has been credited by some with generating the public support leading to adoption of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency.

This year, an estimated half-billion folks will gather across the globe for Earth Day 2000 (theme: Clean Energy Now) activities. And a host of Ashevilleans will be among them, as the city’s Earth Day festival gets under way at 1 p.m. at City/County Plaza (see story on next page for details on the music and other entertainment scheduled).

A local committee — consisting of Sammy Cox, Katie Palombi, Mort Jonas, James Cassera, Jessica Foster, Oliver Gajda, Colleen Rockstroh and Julie Fish — has been working cooperatively since December to plan the first major Asheville Earth Day celebration since 1990, according to Cox.

“Things started off real slowly, and then the momentum gathered with each meeting,” he explains. “We wanted to do this as a committee, without a director, so that left a little bit of what I call organized chaos. … One of the first things we did was to set up a compliance [sub]committee, which we designed to make sure we were practicing what we preached, so far as recycling and that sort of thing went.”

For Cox — who has long been involved with a host of environmental causes — Earth Day holds a deeply personal meaning that dates back to his adolescence: “One of the first science projects I ever did was an ecology project in seventh or eighth grade, and it was generated by momentum from the original Earth Day, in 1970. It was funny, because about 20 years later, I was doing an ornithology program for science teachers in Georgia. After I gave the presentation, the science teacher that actually assigned that Earth Day project to me was in the audience, and she [said] that the notion of a former student being so motivated by an environmental science project was just so exciting.” Cox and the rest of the committee hope that young and old alike will be similarly inspired by Earth Day 2000.

Asheville Parks and Recreation came on board early as a festival sponsor (Earth Day Committee member Palombi is the city’s outdoor-recreation specialist), asking only that one additional non-profit organization partner with them. This turned out to be Jonas’ EarthStage Productions, a theater company dedicated to educating people about the environment. (Two years ago, EarthStage presented an environmental play, Back to Balance, at the Diana Wortham Theatre in celebration of Earth Day.)

“When it became clear that there needed to be a nonprofit that would take the lead with the city in co-sponsoring the event — of all the nonprofits we could think of, the one that had the closest fit in its mission was EarthStage,” points out Jonas. Similarly, Earth Day Committee members tried to find smaller co-sponsors (or stewards, as they’re called in this context) with strong environmental track records. “At each meeting, I’d present businesses who could be potential stewards, and we’d decide if they were compatible with our mission or not,” explains Cox. “We eventually came up with a list of stewards with proven environmental records. … And it’s been really exciting, in that I’ve yet to be turned down by any business or organization we’ve approached.”

In addition to its role as a steward for the event, EarthStage will be presenting two theater pieces: one particularly germane piece about air pollution, written by local playwrights Christine Lassiter and Carrie Gertsmann (Warren Wilson College dance students will play various pollutants); and one about timber issues, written by Jonas.

“We want to point out the seriousness of certain issues, of course, but we also want to celebrate the Earth and celebrate successes,” says Jonas. “So we were adamant about people not being lectured at, although we will have a series of short [speeches] on environmental topics [no speaker will get more than five minutes]. I wanted things to be as fun as possible and have as much information as possible come through theater, so folks could be entertained while being informed.”

Jonas himself will play a tree in both pieces (but he doesn’t seem concerned about typecasting).

He emphasizes that his piece will explore all sides of the issues affecting the timber industry: Characters include a chip-mill owner, a land owner trying to decide whether to sell timber to the chip mill, a county commissioner who’s trying to figure out what to do about the situation, and an environmental activist.

Cox agrees that getting bogged down in environmental problems, to the exclusion of celebrating the good things about planet Earth, can be counterproductive. “One of the things that’s guided me personally in all this,” he says, “is a quote by Edward Abbey: ‘Protect the environment, but spend time enjoying it.'” To facilitate environmental education while leaving the stage free for entertainment, a host of informational booths about recycling and other ongoing earth-friendly activities — plus such local fare as the May 16 Strive Not to Drive Day, the City Seeds urban-ecology public garden, and Quality Forward — will be set up in the festival area.

Earth Day Committee members emphasize that this year’s activities are meant to extend far beyond April 22.

“The emphasis this year is for things not to dead-end,” avows Cox. “We want to continue the momentum we’ve gathered while networking with the community, and some of the ideas that we haven’t had a chance to totally pursue yet. [One example is] an environmental business roundtable where, say, if one business has a recycling protocol in place, they might share it with other businesses at informal monthly meetings. And I think we can all do a better job of sharing the load with [organized environmental groups] regarding clean air and recycling and green spaces.”

Jonas says his hope for the event is really quite simple: to inspire people to care about the Earth. And that, he says, begins with learning to listen to each other. “Sure, there will be disagreements and there will be fights, but the classic example of success is what happened with Bluff Mountain, which is so amazing. Everyone came together at the table and somehow saw that not clear-cutting Bluff Mountain was going to be in everybody’s best interest. That goal seemed impossible when it all began. There’s a real lesson in that.”

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