Smile! It's Earth Day!

Laser Bleaching, complimentary consultation," read the back of the business card distributed by volunteers manning the Laser Whitening tent at last week's Enron Earth Day celebration.

After scouring the "Introducing BriteSmile Laser Tooth Whitening" brochure and fact sheet, though, the connection between a laser-enhanced smile and Earth Day remained a mystery, until one of the volunteers explained: "Psycho Robbie," a DJ at Enron Earth Day co-sponsor KRBE/FM 104, had been a client of the Dental Cosmetic Center of Houston.

"We did his teeth," she said. "So he invit-ed us."
And why not? The Dental Cosmetic Center has as much to do with the environment as University of Houston football coach Kim Helton, who was on hand to sign autographs and pass out 1997 Cougar football schedules. Up on the music stage at Buffalo Bayou Park, has-been rockers Wang Chung were accorded headliner status. Some lucky winner scored a free air conditioner condenser unit. The Rockets, too, had a table, selling season tickets to the Texas Terror arena football team. "I really couldn't tell you what we do ecologically," said the Rockets salesman, as though curious about why anyone would ask.

So that's what it's come to: Almost three decades after its creation, Earth Day has been pretty much co-opted by corporate commercialism and divested of whatever meaning it originally had. It's another excuse to party. Today, even the naming rights are for sale.

For the infinitesimal percentage of Houstonians who braved the unseasonable blustery chill, the goal of Enron Earth Day seemed modest but achievable, at least as outlined in the official program: "It is KRBE's hope that you enjoy the Enron Earth Day Festival and leave with more knowledge about the environment and ways to improve and preserve our future."

And the clusters of makeshift booths that dotted the grounds did provide the opportunity to learn about the planet and the efforts various groups are making to improve it. The Galveston/Houston Association for Smog Prevention (GHASP) had a nifty air-quality monitor that came apart to reveal a maze of baffles and tubes that trap particles for analysis. The Scrap Tire and Plastics Recovery Exchange table was covered with samples of unusual recycled rubber and plastic products, behind which industrial recycler Clem Barker lectured convincingly on the need to buy recycled products.

But most of the grassroots environmental groups, strapped for cash and short on marketing expertise, offered little more than brochures, which the younger attendees passed by entirely and the adults dutifully collected until their fingers clutched fat bundles of folded paper. A few of the more enterprising volunteers engaged the crowd, but most just observed the flow or chatted with each other. Business was slow.

Not at the giant centerpiece Enron tent, however, which practically swarmed with children and parents. The tent dwarfed the other displays like a lord's castle overlooking the hovels of the peasantry. The multifaceted exhibit touted Enron's contributions to the environment, its development of solar and wind energy, its aid to the downtrodden peoples of the globe. The curious were also subjected to a stiff dose of deregulation propaganda, as Enron prepares to battle Houston Lighting & Power and other electric utilities across the country for the lucrative residential market.

Enron knows what really ropes the masses, one heart and mind at a time, and the employees working the tent had plenty of freebies on hand to give away -- Enron pins, little Enron plastic stamps with the gas giant's new corporate logo, squeezable Enron stress balls, Enron tote bags (adults only, one per family) and tubular plastic balloons. The tote bags were especially hot, as people were desperate for a way to carry the piles of brochures and other paraphernalia.

Other exhibitors knew what Enron knows. PrimeCo, a cellular phone outfit, was giving away T-shirts to anyone who could meet the "PrimeCo recycle challenge," which required the tossing of wads of newspaper, aluminum cans and plastic items through holes in a board. At the Club Blue Planet table, blase young women smoking cigarettes handed out free drink coupons with ads promoting "Every Friday $2.00 You Call It All Nite!" A shiny new Hyundai from Charlie Thomas Hyundai North was up for grabs as well, just sign up for a chance to win. Does the Hyundai have any special ecological significance? "It's just a car," shrugged a volunteer.

Most of the products on hand at Enron Earth Day were for sale, however -- an odd jumble of eco-knickknacks and clothing. Boot Scootin' Memories promised to transform your old cowboy boots into lamps, birdhouses and kitchen utensil holders, applying a trademark BSM brand to the leather. A ragged young man idly fingered his body piercings from behind a table of rock and roll paraphernalia featuring Barenaked Ladies, one of the bands slated to play on the KRBE stage. Another booth offered an array of rain forest T-shirts for sale, courtesy of the Texas Rainforest Action Network. The network produces educational materials, according to staffer Shannon McGarrity, but he only brought the shirts to Enron Earth Day. "We're just trying to get rid of some inventory," he said.

Royal Plush manufactures big, funny hats and had a selection of sizes and colors for purchase at Enron Earth Day. Asked what the hats had to do with the spirit of the event, Royal Plush employee Marty Leary grinned a goofy grin. "Nothin'," Leary said. "We just rent space here."

Renting space at eco-events was all the rage this Earth Day weekend. Across town, a scad of corporate suits were putting the finishing touches on a three-day conference titled "A Question of Balance: Building Blocks for Environmental Education in Texas." Hosted by the Environmental Institute of Houston, the conference was designed to begin creating a set of guidelines for environmental education in the Texas schools, a process started in 1991 with the creation of the Texas Environmental Education Advisory Committee. Enron bought a place at the table as a conference sponsor, as did other familiar names: Exxon, Dupont, HL&P, Eastman Chemical, BFI, Dow Chemical.

Other sponsors possessed less familiar, more innocuous names, but they had a common agenda: to weaken environmental regulation of industry by attacking federal initiatives and promoting their interests.

They included Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative think tank bankrolled by the petrochemical, automotive and tobacco industries, which has invested millions to lobby against clean air standards and funded scientific studies to cast doubt on global warming; the National Center for Policy Analysis, whose fact sheet noted that "Man-made food additives, pesticides and airborne pollutants are much less of a health risk than carcinogens that exist naturally in our environment"; and the Natural Resources Foundation of Texas, a property-rights group fronted by ex-governor Dolph Briscoe.

The conference was organized by Duggan Flanakin, author of "Sound Science or Pseudo Science: The Future of Environmental Education in Texas," a report originally commissioned by another conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (where Flanakin was a senior fellow). Though the 18-member steering committee included representatives from two of the tamer grassroots environmental groups, it was front-loaded with industry and think tank types.

Not surprisingly, the basic premise of "A Question of Balance" reflected the views of those who underwrote it -- that radical environmentalists are poisoning the minds of schoolchildren with false fears of planetary destruction, and that the solution is to encourage "balance" in educational materials. "Environmental education is popular with Texas students," said the pre-conference press release, "but critics charge that programs and materials in this field are based on feelings and misinformation instead of sound science; that they offer mere slogans instead of teaching children about real decision-making."

Just who the critics are wasn't mentioned, but some of them gave keynote speeches and led workshops during the three-day event. Barry McBee, the chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, told a lunchtime crowd how his young son has come home spouting extremist rhetoric about environmental dangers and how "he could be subjected to that kind of influence over and over and over again."

Exxon vice-president Frank Sprow presented his company's balanced assessment of environmental issues ("Our view is that we can meet our obligation to provide energy and chemical products to the public and at the same time respond to society's desire for a cleaner, healthier and safer environment") and plugged such Exxon-developed environmental education programs as CHEM -- Chemicals, Health, Environment and Me. Outside the auditorium, Exxon's man behind the booth offered "Fuels for America's Future," a glossy booklet that attacks the Superfund, environmental regulations and other unbalanced government burdens.

It was a recurring theme, but the evidence that rabid environmentalists have taken over the schools was anecdotal, at best. But backing up the assertions is unnecessary and beside the point, according to Flanakin -- the fact is, he said, that there's a perception in certain quarters (the ones that put up the money and dominated the event, apparently) that it's so, and "the premise of the conference was dealing with people's perceptions."

And indulging them.
Back at Enron Earth Day, the BFI trash containers filled up with official programs and brochures from the green groups, since no one thought to put out recycling bins for the occasion. Perhaps the organizers had read the Citizens for a Sound Economy literature attacking recycling as wasteful and expensive.

On-stage, recycled hacks Wang Chung sang their signature tune, "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," backed by a taped band. Celebrants trickled out of Buffalo Bayou Park, carrying merchandise and Enron paraphernalia. An environmental youth group passed out portable ashtrays for smokers who would otherwise toss their butts on the ground. The ashtrays carried the Vantage cigarette logo.

"They just gave them to us," explained the high schooler behind the table. Someone won the Hyundai. After the show, he gassed it up and drove it home.


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