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Monday, April 21, 2014

Earth Day – does anyone in Charlestown care anymore?

April 22, another day on the calendar
By Will Collette
Earth Day 1970

I have a sentimental attachment to Earth Day. Cathy and I first met when we were both volunteers at the long-gone Ecology Action for Rhode Island. Ecology Action was founded in the first blush of the new wave of environmentalism that led to the celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970

Forty-four years ago, wow, has it really been that long?

In 1970, Earth Day was a big deal and was marked with mass rallies across North America that raised issues large and small, global and local, and had a pretty sharp message about corporate polluters. 

Lots of national groups, regional coalitions and local grassroots organizations grew out of that event and carried enough momentum to push Congress to enact landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Over time, the Earth Day event was inevitably co-opted and used by corporate polluters to “greenwash” their public image while continue to rape the planet. Earth Day became a nice, warm-and-fuzzy day where well-intentioned people could say they were environmentalists by spending a few hours picking up trash. 

It’s only a matter of time before Earth Day starts to resemble other holidays where you are encouraged to send greeting cards (on 100% post-consumer recycled paper, of course) and are deluged with car dealer holiday sale TV ads (only these will push hybrids and all-electrics).

Nonetheless, I see Earth Day 1970 as the birthday of the modern environmental movement that, among other things, did indeed launch many grassroots groups who fought local environmental problems such as toxic waste dumps, giant garbage facilities, chemical plants, coal mines, factory farming and fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants. I spent 20 years in Washington working with groups like that.


From LIFE Magazine in 1970
Over time, the unity of Earth Day devolved and the environmental movement split into pretty distinct factions. I knew the grassroots wing best since I was immersed in working to organize them 24/7 from 1980 to 2000. 

Though the grassroots wing tended to be pretty militant and anti-corporate, we were flanked on the left by Greenpeace, Earth First and related groups who saw not only corporations, but human beings in general as threats to the environment. Within in that radical wing were activists who burned down buildings under construction and who drove spikes into trees so that chainsaws would explode and injure lumber workers. There were even some who publicly wished a plague would descend to decimate, if not wipe out, humankind.

Oddly, these anti-human being activists shared a lot in common with some of the most conservative groups within the broad environmentalist array, the conservationists. Most typical of this end of the spectrum is the Nature Conservancy. They too see people as a major problem, though not all people. 

For example, they’re fine with corporate polluters who provide the Conservancy with very generous funding to buy up swaths of land to be set aside and keep away from human use. The National Wildlife Federation and Audubon Society have similar profiles.

Then, spanning a wide spread at the center of the spectrum are the more technocratic environmental organizations. Some examples are the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Environmental Action and others, plus regional and local versions such as the Conservation Law Foundation.

These organizations do meticulous research and issue lots of studies and reports. They lobby for legislation and fight in the bureaucratic trenches to make sure environmental regulations are well written. They file lots of major lawsuits.

Some major groups within the environmental movement are, to my point of view, hybrids that try to combine different elements. There are a couple of stand-out groups that are conservation-based, but who have embraced aspects of grassroots environmentalism and have done active outreach to grassroots groups. Prime examples are the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth

A couple of technocratic environmental groups are also stand-outs for their efforts to connect with grassroots groups – Clean Water Action and the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) which was found by Ralph Nader.

But the days when these diverse groups with radically divergent points of view would be willing to stand united, if only for a day, are long gone. In the day-to-day reality, I see these groups drifting further apart. 

Just to be clear, even though I have my own personal politics on the environment, just about every group I’ve named above has done good things and, to varying degrees, I’ve done work with all of them. No one group can cover every issue or engage every constituency, so there is a value to having groups that span the political spectrum, so long as that spectrum is actually covered.

Charlestown is a microcosm of the national politics on the environment. In the official Charlestown led by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party), “environmentalism” is defined by a distinctly anti-human being philosophy closely resembling the radical conservationists in Earth First (though without the arson or sabotage, at least for now).

Under the leadership of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, official Charlestown policy places open space acquisition above any other land use, even though more than half of Charlestown’s land is open space. 

On top of that, Platner and Council Boss Tom Gentz have tried to engineer giveaways of taxpayer money through transfer of land and cash to their favorite conservation group, the Charlestown Land Trust.

Under Platner, and now with her husband Cliff Vanover ensconced on the Zoning Board of Review, no construction is good construction.

Platner espouses a policy of discouraging families with children to move to or live in Charlestown. I am not making this up. She even published a bogus mathematical formula that allegedly shows how families with school-age children are parasites plaguing Charlestown taxpayers. Click here to see for yourself.

Platner does not care about the problems connected to Charlestown’s active or inactive quarries. She washed her hands of efforts to regulate these largely unregulated businesses while eagerly seeking to control the building design, lighting, signage, parking lots and shrubbery of, for example, Arrowhead Dental or the Cross Mills Fire station and other small businesses around town.

Platner and the Town Council do not care about Charlestown’s terribly low recycling rate. We are last in the state for tonnage per capita, but for some reason, that doesn’t register with her, the Council or the CCA Party.

Platner and her Town Council colleagues don’t care about the lingering hazards of the old hazardous waste dumps scattered across the Charlestown landscape. Many of them are now “open space” because they have been “remediated” by having tons of clay put on top of them as “caps,” while toxic chemicals continue to leach out of the bottom of those sites and into our ground water.

Banned in Charlestown
Platner and her CCA Party colleagues see green energy as a threat, not a moral imperative to do our share to address climate change. Accordingly, Charlestown has effectively banned all forms of wind-generated energy, including small turbines that could provide individual homes with clean energy. 

She thought former Town Administrator Bill DiLibero committed a terrible crime by exploring whether one of our local “capped” toxic waste sites could be re-purposed as a biofuel facility.

Under attack by the CCA Party
Platner and her husband Cliff tried to impede the building of adequate toilet facilities at the two town beaches, preferring instead that people either not come to the beach or that they should “hold it” until they hit a public restroom somewhere out of town.

The CCA Party has fought against expanded aquaculture in our salt ponds, even though aquaculture not only creates jobs but actually helps to clean the coastal ponds, because some CCA members think the sight of people working in the ponds spoils their view.

Public transportation, CCA style
And not even a Peep® from Platner or the CCA Party about the lack of access to public transportation for Charlestown residents to get to work, school or training.

Last year, CCA Party Town Council Boss Tom Gentz decided the best way for Charlestown to celebrate Earth Day was to recruit local volunteers to clean up storm debris on the properties of non-resident beach property owners who had failed to clean up their own properties.

There was no repeat of that silly plan this year. Instead, Charlestown isn’t marking Earth Day at all.

And why should it, given that the controlling CCA Party has gotten more open space on the books, killed the Whalerock wind turbine project, driven plenty of businesses out of town, shrunk the population and reduced the number of Charlestown kids going to Chariho. This has been a good year for the CCA “environmental” agenda, so maybe there’s really no point in marking Earth Day.

But I am a little surprised that they don’t hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the front of Town Hall.