Spin the wheel for the planet. Photo: MaryAnn Wagner
What better place to celebrate Earth Day’s 45th birthday than Seattle, where Sen. Gaylord Nelson first broached the idea in a September 1969 speech? And where better than on a campus, where so much of the first Earth Day upwelling happened?
And so I pedaled (in the spirit, and because they were the only wheels at hand) over to the University of Washington's Red Square on Wednesday to see how Earth Day was faring in middle age. At first glance the vital signs weren’t encouraging. As many students seemed to be hurrying between classes or huddling over their mobiles as checking out the booths. A few grooved to the solid beat of the band San Juan, self-proclaimed “dawgs forever!”
Those who stopped congregated at the booths with the best freebies – notably Wilcox Farms’, which was frying free omelets. In the next booth, the young guy promoting an upcoming UW Sustainability Summit was the loneliest man on Red Square. He brightened at having someone to talk to, even if it was just me asking why no one was stopping. “I don’t have anything to give away,” he shrugged. “I probably should.”
Still, he said, this UW Earth Day was much better than last year’s. Then the festivities were consigned to the HUB lot, it rained, and “nobody came.” And sure enough, the spirit wasn’t lost. San Juan’s front man got a round of applause when he paused between songs to proclaim, “And don’t forget Earth Day! Plant a tree! Tear down a power plant!” Never mind that Washington has just one coal-fired plant to tear down, at Centralia, and it’s slated to stop burning coal by 2025.
Two campus offices had figured out how to combine free stuff, fun and message to good effect. Students lined up at the UW Recycling and Solid Waste booth to spin a fortune wheel and find out whether they’d have to answer a question on composting (“Name three things that go in the compost bin”), recycling, or “?” to win … a reusable plastic cup.
The longest line of all formed at the UW Grounds booth, which gave away 3-inch red cedar sprouts. Each recipient received instructions, on paper and face-to-face, on how to plant, mulch and water their future 100-foot trees. Not exactly the thing for a dorm room or apartment, I said to two budding arborists waiting in line. “I live at home,” one replied. “I’ll take mine home to plant this weekend,” said the other.
Forget tree hugging, it’s time for tree planting! Earth Day lives – the kids are still alright. More right than ever, maybe, if you believe surveys showing they’re less interested in owning cars and big lawns than any previous generation sampled. There’s hope for the planet after all!
Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.