Environmentalism

April Frauds

Three manufactured holidays make fools of us all.

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Expressions of spring silliness aren't limited to April Fool's Day, the traditional prankster's holiday that targets only the willing and the gullible. Three stupid celebrations of more recent vintage make suckers of the whole population.

Earth Day is a designer holiday crafted to dramatize the ascendancy of style over substance, a feel-good feast enabling sentimentalists to live out the ultimate power fantasy: patronizing an entire planet. Nobody has calculated the cost of Earth Day in terms of wasted resources, but during the nearly 30 years since its founding, this foolish fête has surely racked up billions.

Earth Day promises salvation through consumerism: If only we would buy the right stuff–electric cars, herbal remedies, hemp-fiber clothing, biodegradable detergent–the world would be drenched in virtue. It presumes that individual purchasing and packaging decisions trump the effects of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, ice ages, meteor storms, and solar flares.

Earth Day's hallmark is contempt for the poor, especially the working poor, for whom photo ops are low on the agenda, and for business people and workers in general. Only those who value consumption above production can so disdain the folks who create value.

Two years ago, New York's planet lovers celebrated Earth Day by closing off 10 midtown blocks of Park Avenue, headquarters of some of the country's largest corporations, for the apparent purpose of raising the consciousness of working people by preventing them from getting to work. Bemused office and delivery personnel stood by while green confetti was strewn about and Earth-friendly junk was hawked from kiosks, while politicians with bullhorns proclaimed their love for the Earth and disabled people tried in vain to gain access to their normal transportation. Two million brochures extolling the wonderfulness of Our Planet (printed on recycled paper, which everyone knows costs nothing to produce or clean up) were distributed in the streets and at bridges and tunnels (so that drivers entering the city could pause for a moment after paying their tolls to reflect on the bounty of nature before tossing the brochures out the window).

Soreheads who wondered why the event couldn't be held in a park, where some actual nature was available for contemplation and where Earth Day pollution wouldn't exacerbate the ordinary annoyances of city life, were reviled as planet-hostile. "I think everyone should be willing to give up a day's work to celebrate the Earth," bleated one professional city council member, apparently ignorant of her constituents who live on an hourly wage.

Another year, Earth Day was on a Sunday. My construction company had obtained a special permit for that day to lift a 10-ton steel superstructure onto a building. This work, which requires closing a lane for the operation of the crane, is allowed only on Sundays to minimize traffic disruption.

We'd rented the crane, hired the operating engineers and oilers, and arranged for a triple crew on double time to perform the lift and the welding. Besides these expenses, our contractual penalty for failure to complete on time would be $10,000 a day, or $70,000 a week. No one had told us that the street where we planned to work was among those selected for the privilege of being closed to celebrate the Environment.

At 7 p.m. on the evening before the lift, the traffic coordinator in the mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement called me at home.

"We're revoking your permit," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"It was issued in error," she said. "I'm sorry. We thought it had something to do with Earth Day."

I tried to argue. "Are you telling me that if I wanted to lift 10 tons of green balloons saying `Celebrate Earth Day!' which would get into the rivers and choke the fish, I'd be allowed to do it, but employing two dozen people to lift 10 tons of steel is not OK?"

"That's right."

"I'll hoist the balloons after I'm done with the steel," I offered. "I'll attach the balloons to the steel. I'll lift the balloons, and the balloons can lift the steel. This is ecological. It will utilize the Laws of Nature."

"Forget it."

"I'll paint the crane green!" I was getting desperate. "I'll paint the steel green and write pro-Earth messages on it. Why does it have to be balloons?"

Click.

Earth Day's anti-business bias is not surprising, considering its origins. John McConnell, a self-proclaimed founder of Earth Day (as with other successful institutions, there are rival paternity claims), wrote in his seminal statement of purpose, "Earth Magna Charta": "The long-term goal must be to restructure social institutions so that there is equitable return for services, efficient balance of supply and demand, and fair benefits from our mutual claims to Earth's natural bounty…. One possible way to equitable benefits is for those who own land, oil, gold or other minerals to pay a 2 percent royalty each year on their income from these resources to a fund that will then provide the homeless their inheritance or stake in their planet. All will then join in responsible care of Earth."

For McConnell, who at the age of 85 is still actively promoting Earth Day, the goal is nothing less than the complete reorganization of the world economy: "The digital economy will make it possible to eventually replace money and credit as we know it with new, fair methods of trade and exchange."

Weirdly coinciding this year with anti-enterprise Earth Day is the seventh annual Take Your Daughter to Work Day, a promotion by Ms. magazine, which as a sideline this year helpfully offers $50 "grownup kits" and other paraphernalia to help get you started. This year's inspiring slogan: "The Future Is Me."

Unlike Earth Day, which is merely a crime against working people, this event is a crime against children. It teaches them that it's not what you make of yourself, how hard you work, what you know, or even whom you know that determines your success and professional satisfaction. It's the biological equipment you are born with.

Last year, I entertained a passel of girls whose parents brought them in to introduce them to the mysteries of the workplace. "Where are your brothers today?" I asked them.

"In school!" they chortled. "Only girls get to go to work with their moms and dads on Take Your Daughter to Work Day!"

"Boys have all the advantages," explained a poised 8-year-old, my factory landlord's daughter, calmly collecting my rent check and neatly writing out a receipt. "That's why I get to do this."

This real estate manager's daughter was luckier than many. It turns out that only certain kinds of labor qualify as "work." In 1996 one Michigan mother-daughter team found themselves in trouble when they spent the day doing spring cleaning. School officials balked at giving the teenager credit. "My work at home is my job," said the mother. "I'm taking care of my family. I wanted to show her what work was like at home."

Eventually the school relented. But it's clear that the ritual of spending a day in a parent's or other relative's workplace–a fine idea for both boys and girls–is designed to advance a political rather than an educational agenda.

Secretaries Day®, a promotion by the flower industry, offers (presumably male) bosses the opportunity to proclaim their endorsement of the new, employee-sensitive, "caring and sharing" workplace by bestowing traditional symbols of seduction –flowers, candy, and luncheon or dinner à deux–on female employees.

Something seems amiss here, and not only because the recommended romantic offerings also connote apology. It's as though the boss is acknowledging, one day a year, the underappreciated women who endure his temper tantrums, hangovers, and general boorishness while uncomplainingly performing his work so he can take the credit.

More to the point, changing workplace roles have made it unclear just who is entitled to the posies. Managers tap out their own inter-office memos, administrative assistants mutate into account executives, and information systems personnel and programmers are as likely to be male as female. In my office the men have taken to lampooning this holiday by sending flowers to one another (but not to the women) to avoid giving offense.

A day honoring office workers is a commendable notion. The pros who operate the switchboards, fax machines, and computers, and generally keep the wheels of commerce oiled, deserve recognition. But why not say it with a magazine subscription or a gift certificate from a bookstore, and leave the sexist overtures out of it?

The dates of all three manufactured celebrations are fungible, with different promoters declaring various days to be the "official" one. We should be grateful for the lack of central planning, but the unfortunate result is that all these holidays are exhibiting creepage. Secretaries Day®, formerly the third Wednesday in April, has mutated into Secretaries Week® (April 18-23), and Earth Day, due to some factional conflict between proponents of March 22 and champions of April 22, has been transformed into Earth Month.

Earth Month 2000, according to Earthday.org, McConnell's outfit, will boast 2 billion participants, or nearly a third of the world's population. With any luck, his economic redistribution plan will be well under way by then, enabling all the participants to purchase their allotment of Earth-friendly souvenirs.

Tama Starr (tstarr@tiac.net) is president of The Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation in New York City and the author of Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Marketing of America (Doubleday).

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