Earth Day lasts a lot longer than 24 hours for Kathleen Rogers, an environmental attorney and advocate who’s president of Earth Day Network. Rogers recently spoke with Washingtonian.com about the millions of Earth Day events her organization is tracking at act.earthday.org. She also opened up about the challenge of trying to live “green” in her own busy life.
In 2001, you took over as president of Earth Day Network and decided to keep the organization headquartered in Washington. What makes this city so integral to Earth Day Network’s mission?
It was really about a basic question: If Earth Day Network is the bottom of the pyramid in the sense that our job is to build an environmental movement, I felt that the better place to do that from was Washington. I still think that Washington is the center of the political and environmental universe. The diplomats are here, Congress is here, the White House, obviously, is here. Most major organizations that do global work are either centered here or have a major office here. We truly are global. We have 25,000 groups in 192 countries. And so being here in Washington just felt like the right choice.
What is Earth Day like for you and your colleagues here in Washington?
We’ve been insanely busy since February, which is what we are every year because people take the Earth Day “moment” and they expand it. It used to be March and April; now it’s January through September. We have community groups all over the US, all over the Arab world—everywhere—committing to plant trees, but they’re planting them and doing the big community event in September when it’s a better time to plant a tree. We used to get an Excel spreadsheet and pump all [the Earth Day events] in, but it just became completely unmanageable. We’d have these maps, and they’d be obliterated with little red dots. Keeping track of all of this is very difficult, so we shifted to the “Billion Acts of Green” Web campaign so that we could log both individual acts and group acts.
If you were to give Washington a grade for its earth-friendliness, what would it be and why?
Well, that’s a complicated question. We had a report that we put out [in 2007]—the Urban Environment Report. We were 45th out of 72 cities. Not great. On the other hand, compared to a lot of cities, this is quite a livable city in many respects. It’s really about who you ask: The life of a double-income upper-middle-class family in northwest DC is entirely different than somebody who’s below the poverty line or who can’t find a job.
A lot of us separate our aluminum, plastic, and cardboard, and even carry cloth bags for our groceries. What’s the next concrete step that mainstream America must take in order to become a more earth-friendly nation?
Being an active environmental citizen means you’re talking to your city council person, you’re talking to your elected representative, you’re making noise. As much as Earth Day forms the base of the environmental pyramid and educates people, our next step up is activism. I take a lot of personal actions, and I’m not perfect. I drive my car to work because public transportation is a challenge for me. I have kids, and I have all these errands to do, and I’m driving all over the place. But I recycle madly, and I’m a gardener, and I grow vegetables, and I eat organic, and I do as much as I possibly can. But I’m not perfect, and nobody’s perfect. Once government and civil society and corporations get together and make it easy for us to be green, then we’ll all go green. [That’s why it’s important] to pick up a phone and call the Capitol Hill switchboard and ask your member of Congress, “What are they doing?”
Is the “green” language that companies and governments use losing any of its significance?
I think corporations are motivated by different things. Governments are motivated by different things. It’d be wonderful if we were all very precise and there was a way to judge whether or not what we were saying is, in fact, accurate. Yes, companies are using greener language, but that’s not where I look to see if they’re being accurate. I look to their social-responsibility reports to see how they’re changing the bottom line and acting differently. I tend to ignore—and I think most people do in my business—what companies are telling the general public.
Let’s say you’re about to take the podium at a major rally for conservative voters. Some in their ranks view the environment as an important issue, but most list other concerns ahead of it. How do you frame your appeal to people who say, “There are a lot of other things that are important to me than the environment?”
We’re not asking anybody to make a trade-off. For example, I worry about a lot of things. I worry about my organization raising enough money; I worry about my kids doing well in school. But I never put those issues in front of whether I’m going to live a healthy life or I’m going to be an environmentalist. We are looking at the greatest change in the history of mankind as we move away from fossil fuels and have to rethink every single part of our lives. I’m telling my kids, “Why would you get engaged in an industry, or occupation, or a way of life, or a way of thinking that will be obsolete in five years?” If we do this again we’ll truly be out of the running to be a global leader. And that’s my greatest concern for my children and for my country. I want us to be making sophisticated global systems that the rest of the world can buy so that they can modernize and become a part of the green economy.