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Too Hip for Her Own Good? : Suddenly, Mother Earth has become the chic cause. With Earth Day's 20th anniversary approaching on April 22, some activists fear the barrage of media and marketing hype may harm rather than help the environmental movement. Can the Earth survive Earth Day?

March 30, 1990|CONNIE KOENENN and BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Outside, searchlights sweep the sky. Inside, the glitterati listen in giddy anticipation. "Ladies and Gentlemen, in the category of Hippest Heavenly Body in the Galaxy, the winner is . . . the Planet Earth!!!!!"

OK. It hasn't come to that.

But almost. Suddenly, the Earth and eco-awareness have become a super-chic steamroller, flattening rap, Quayle-bashing and co-dependency as the national phenomenon most worthy of media fixation and celebrity cause-hopping.

For folks who grew concerned about the fate of the planet back before Rachel Carson published the pivotal 1964 alarum "Silent Spring," the surprising spate of attention is encouraging, exhilarating, vindicating.

But some also worry that as save-the-planet pandemonium builds toward a frenzied crescendo on April 22 with the gala 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a grumble will be heard across the land: "Enough, already! What's next?"

Having had her 15 minutes of glory, will Mother Earth go the way of all fads?

People who have been slaving to make Earth Day happen are appalled by such questions.

But some also intimate a nagging fear that the public may indeed overdose on the E-Day publicity blitz, making it harder than ever for serious environmentalists to get their urgent message across. Earth Day may just prove counterproductive.

"There's no question" that some people will use the hoopla surrounding Earth Day as a reason to dismiss the environmental crisis as an issue and personal responsibility as a solution, former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D.-Wis.) concedes.

But Nelson, a creator of the original Earth Day in 1970, recalls that the same thing happened then: "Anyone who didn't want to do anything (about environmental problems) called it a fad. Those people don't give a damn anyway."

Because of that first Earth Day, though, "there are a hell of a lot more people who give a damn now," Nelson says.

Comparing Earth Day, 1970, to Earth Day, 1990, however, is like comparing a back-yard football game to the Super Bowl.

Most observers trace Mother Earth's meteoric rise to fame to summer, 1988, when the ozone hole seared a startling image of environmental destruction in American minds and Atlantic waves washed bloody syringes up around the ankles of influential East Coasters.

As a result, in January, 1989, Time magazine put the Earth on its cover as "Planet of the Year." Three months later, on March 24, the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo on the waters of Alaska.

And as 1990 rolled in, everyone starting wanting a piece of the eco-action.

In January, the cover of Harper's Bazaar declared an "Earth Alert" and featured models who "support efforts to preserve our planet and rely on natural ingredients to maintain their own good looks," as well as mini-profiles of eco-activists such as Olivia Newton-John, the United Nation's first honorary environment ambassador.

In March, Vogue magazine breathlessly followed suit, addressing the environmental crisis, in part, with a spread on hats made of moss and birch branches.

Working Assets Money Fund recently introduced a special Earth Day IRA, and alert entrepreneurs nationwide are translating the new love for Mother Earth into a spate of products sporting conspicuous (and often suspicious) "Earth Friendly" or "Biodegradable" labels.

"We're knee-deep in environmental hype," declared Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert Humphrey III, rolling a grocery cart filled with newly sprung "environmental" products before a recent public forum.

His exhibit included a deodorant that claims to have "environmentally lighter propellant."

The publishing industry has embraced Earth Day by printing enough books to topple a forest. The list of more than 50 titles tied to Earth Day begins with "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet," escalates to "The 365 Ways to Save Our Planet Calendar," continues with "Save Our Planet: 750 Everyday Ways You Can Help Clean Up the Earth" and "The Green Lifestyle Handbook: 1001 Ways to Heal the Earth."

Housework adviser Heloise also penned "Hints for a Healthy Planet."

Meanwhile, Hollywood has latched onto environmentalism with all the enthusiasm it had for "thirtysomething" clones a few seasons back. Several series, including "The Golden Girls," have woven environmentalist threads into their plots. Two networks are planning ecological "A-Team" type series. CNN is launching a cartoon ecology crusader named Capt. Planet, and a new troop of Muppets will soon jump into the Earth-saving fray.

People who call the Earth Day office in Palo Alto to take "the Personal Green Pledge" are greeted by the voice of TV star Howie Mandel. At least 3,000 Earth Day events are scheduled nationwide, the capper being a two-hour television special featuring Bugs Bunny, Chevy Chase, Kevin Costner, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams and E.T. the extraterrestrial.

Environmental activists learned long ago that to compete with the stories of the day they needed to give their intricate issues sex appeal.

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