A corporatized Earth Day? 

How do you like your

How do you like your Earth Day? Organic or genetically modified? That's one metaphor for the opinions surrounding the most public environmental event in Indianapolis. For the 13th year, Earth Day Indiana, Inc. will stage a festival of environmental information, demonstrations, food and music Saturday, April 26 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on the American Legion Mall at Meridian and North streets.
Deb Ellman, coordinator for Earth Day Indiana, Inc., says, "Earth Day Indiana"s festival is for a broad audience - some of whom consider themselves environmentalists, and many of whom do not Ö

But one leading environmental group will be conspicuously absent, for the most part: the Hoosier Environmental Council.

For the past two years, HEC and the Citizens Action Coalition have staged an alternative Earth Day event in response to the notion that Earth Day Indiana, Inc.'s event has become too corporatized.

"Our reluctance to be involved stems from our thought that the message of Earth Day is dominated by corporations, whose message is already out there every day of the year," says Tim Maloney, executive director of HEC.

"Earth Day Indiana, Inc.'s approach is that Earth Day is for everyone to take part in as a community, not only for environmentalists," says Deb Ellman, coordinator for Earth Day Indiana, Inc.

"Earth Day Indiana"s festival is for a broad audience - some of whom consider themselves environmentalists, and many of whom do not - but most of whom want to know what they can do to help. They want a fun, free, non-threatening way to get some information, bring the kids for an educational day they can enjoy and maybe begin to get involved, at whatever level they are able."

For HEC staff member Denise Baker, Earth Day Indiana's corporate and special interest group sponsorships seriously dilute the integrity of the event. While both Baker and Ellman say their organizations are on good terms, Baker can't abide what looks like hypocrisy. "The Earth Day event does an excellent job of increasing environmental awareness among the general public," she says. "However, many citizens simply do not know that many of the festival's participants are some of Indiana's largest polluters." Among them, gas and electric power plants.

Baker adds, "Many of these polluters do engage in worthwhile environmental projects, such as environmental education and creating parks - but their environmental stewardship needs to expand to their larger operations, such as decreasing water pollution discharges, for example."

Call it greenwashing: Companies promote themselves as earth-friendly in slick, feel-good ads, while continuing to pollute as a matter of course. Ellman counters that Earth Day Indiana's sponsors and exhibitors are at different levels of environmental consciousness and ability. "While none of them can be impact-free on the environment, many of them are making environmental efforts, which they would like to share at Earth Day. Our position is that it is better to have these organizations at the table, engaged in the dialogue of environmental concerns, so that we can all help each other to improve."

"Helping each other improve" means different things to different people. A message circulating on the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter listserv pinpoints one suspect Earth Day exhibitor: Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, "an organization devoted to increased burning of coal," according to Evansville activist John Blair. The Virginia-based group allegedly wrote a letter to its members inviting them to an Earth Day hospitality suite - as if it were the Super Bowl - promising access to politicians and decision-makers.

"It is too bad that real Hoosiers and environmentalists don't have comparable access to these people that a lobby group can have on the so-called Indy Earth Day," Blair wrote.

The debate about the relative purity of Earth Day mirrors the debate about the public perception of environmentalism itself. Is it an "ism" that the average Hoosier associates with radical anti-capitalist eco-terrorists? Is it about how communities can function in healthy, sustainable ways, with implications for production methods, health, food, transportation and living spaces? Or is it enough to recycle your pop can and call it a day?

For Ellman, it's unrealistic to expect immediate total "conversion." "There are lots of families who are happy to plant a tree, come to a clean-up, become more energy-efficient, if they just knew what to do ... but they still might not call themselves "environmentalists." It's a process of increments, not one big leap. Once we've got their attention, then groups like Sierra Club, HEC and other citizen groups can take it from there, moving people to take more detailed and directed action."

This year, there won't be an alternative Earth Day, as the Hoosier Environmental Council chooses to focus on grass-roots statewide representation at Earth Month events in Lafayette, Terre Haute and other places. But earnest debate continues on strategies for turning the tide here in Indiana, the third most polluted state in the country, according to the Institute for Southern Studies" Gold and Green report. Given the sundry, transitional state of affairs, don"t be surprised to see Earth Day-goers discovering, for example, the benefits of organic produce, then driving home in their SUVs.

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