Growing like a weed

Sarah Staples, Canwest News Service

Earth Day Canada president Jed Goldberg says his group is shaping public behaviour.Global climate change conferences such as the one held in Copenhagen in December have accomplished little given the huge investment by countries around the world, says Jed Goldberg, president of Earth Day Canada.

Those mammoth United Nations-sponsored conferences have become magnets for political photo ops, the media and the movement's usual suspects, Mr. Goldberg says, but they have failed to strike a chord with ordinary citizens or generate any real change.

And in an era when nations including Canada are ignoring binding Kyoto Protocol commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he says money would be better spent supporting countless small, daily efforts of individuals and communities to prevent Earth's degradation.

"What happens where Canadians live is real for them; what happens halfway around the world isn't something they feel connected to," he says. "So whatever we do 'for the environment' has to be something they can see and feel and touch."

Earth Day Canada, which is marking its 20th anniversary today, was originally the coordinating body for festivities in Canada commemorating another 20th anniversary: that of Earth Day, which is now 40 years old.

But the Canadian event proved so popular with schools, community groups and businesses that Earth Day Canada became a permanent charity -- and has grown into a powerhouse.

The organization spends $3.5-million annually developing educational programs for 40% of Canadian schoolchildren, and handing out scholarships and grants to support grassroots activism.

The key to its success has been to reach out to average Canadians, who, poll after poll suggests, view themselves as sensitive to issues of the environment even though they might live in the suburbs and drive an SUV. They are people who haven't felt welcomed by "traditional" environmental activists, Mr. Goldberg says.

The "conference of the future," he says, should look like the one organized in 2005 by Earth Day Canada scholarship recipient Alysia Garmulewicz, who, as a teenager from tiny New Denver, B.C., raised $120,000 to hold her own national conference on climate change in Victoria.

Last summer, before leaving for Oxford, England, on a Rhodes scholarship, Ms. Garmulewicz organized a second conference in Vancouver, called World Changing Careers, brainstorming ways to incorporate environmental goals into education.

Ms. Garmulewicz, who attended Copenhagen last year, calls it a valuable exercise, but says the narrow focus on setting targets for reducing carbon emissions has mostly left the public cold.

"The message has been that we need to cut back on emissions, not what we should build," she says. "The next step has to be to say, 'across all disciplines and areas of expertise 3/8, what are we as a society working toward?'"

Other Earth Day Canada honorees coast to coast have planted thousands of trees, saved neighbourhood animal species from extinction, fought for municipal pesticide bylaws and the protection of environmentally significant forests, halted clear-cutting of mature trees and cleaned up beaches.

They have written plays for children, planted therapeutic gardens, opened second-hand stores salvaging and reselling junk pile finds and secured millions of dollars to clean up abandoned industrial sites near their homes.

And the organization has made progress in positively shaping Canadians' behaviour overall, Mr. Goldberg says.

Backyard composters and rooftop solar arrays, which two decades ago were unheard of, are now commonplace in many communities. Littering and carrying groceries home in plastic bags have become socially taboo. And businesses cater to a burgeoning marketplace for ethically and environmentally sound products, from locavore foods to LEED-certified new homes.

At the same time, there is an increasingly dirty public relations war being waged to try to win over the public, Mr. Goldberg says, with many examples of companies spreading misinformation about their products' supposed green attributes.

Earth Day Canada has been in court several times defending its trademarked name against allegedly unscrupulous marketing. An example Mr. Goldberg cites was when a home building supplier tried to sponsor an 'Earth Day Canada'-themed promotional giveaway of live tree seedlings.

"We don't ever want the name to turn into an opportunity for commercial shilling of who knows what," he says.

David Donnelly, an environmental lawyer and former executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, calls Earth Day Canada's idealism "essential" to support grassroots organizations that are trying to make a difference.

"People who, for whatever reason, feel alienated or distanced from environmentalism need to be brought on board," says Mr. Donnelly, who last year won the organization's 'hometown hero' award.

"And environmentalists need to do everything possible for that to happen."


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