COLUMBIA – Environmental warrior Edward Abbey once said the idea of wilderness needs no defense, just more defenders.
On Sunday, the environmental defenders of Columbia turned out in force to celebrate Earth Day and show that speaking for the environment is no longer just the domain of hippies and New Age practitioners.
About 250 booths lined six blocks near the MU campus, turning the everyday college atmosphere into a riot of colors, sounds and smells. Thousands flocked to the Earth Day Street Fair, which was held from noon to 7 p.m.
The diversity of the stalls was mirrored by the people visiting them. Most of them shared a similar concern: Save the environment before it's too late.
“Everybody's worried about the environment, man. The ice caps are melting, waters are rising and we need to do something about it,” said graphic designer Jimmie Markey.
Inventory specialist Robert Cone, who visited the event with his 3-year-old grandson, Riddick Angle, said the energy crisis last year had made many people aware of the need to find alternate sources of fuel.
He said the world needed to wean itself off the finite fossil fuels it currently uses and move to alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.
Cone said that while grassroots celebrations like the one in Columbia are relatively small and localized, the event was needed to show the general public the direction in which the world needs to go.
“It might take 50 to 100 years. But hey, we gotta start sometime,” he said.
Student Seung Ho Choi, who visited the festival with his family, said the event was unlike what he was used to back home in Korea. The main difference, he said, was that here Earth Day is truly a festival of the community.
“Even if somebody wants to display something that is not directly related to Earth Day, it's fine. It's their show," Choi said.
He was also impressed by how the event depended mainly on volunteers who did not rely on the government's help.
Many visitors were not short of ideas and suggestions on protecting and conserving the environment.
MU math professor Ian Aberbach suggested that urban areas be subject to a "wiser and more carefully managed" mode of expansion.
Kathleen Huser, a farmer from Wright City, took advantage of Earth Day to promote her chemical-free and eco-friendly product: worm castings produced by garbage-eating worms that can be used for vermiculture.
"It's not really popular, but is very good for the environment and the health," Huser said. "I have 12 grandchildren and we want to make them healthy, eating chemical-free food."
The banners and signs that dotted the streets were as eloquent as the advocates. One placard stood in the middle of Elm Street, announcing that visitors were entering Eco Avenue while a nearby poster announced that the Earth says much to those who listen. A few yards away, a sign at a League of Women Voters stall advised people to check their carbon footprints.
And though the environment was the cause celebre of the day, there were many booths at the festival that took a broader view of what Earth Day was about.
For example, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, a non-profit organization that promotes peace and a sustainable future, decided to make a difference through photographs, giving visitors a chance to deliver their message by holding a white-board with their thoughts on it and having their pictures taken.
The photographs will later be sent to President Barack Obama as well as several Missouri lawmakers. People were given the choice of writing what they wanted or choosing from ready-made quotes like “Invest in kids, not CEOs” or “Drop tuition, not bombs.”
“We hired them,” Peaceworks community outreach coordinator Lily Tinker Fortel, said of the lawmakers . “We want to make sure they know that we are not happy with what they're doing in Washington D.C.” More than 60 people had their pictures taken at the booth in the first hour alone.
Fortel took a broad view of the festival. “Earth Day is all about getting together and learning more about what is happening,” she said.
Sporting a huge comic of Obama with the caption, “Go tell Michelle (that) it’s OK to grow ganja in the garden,” the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws booth was one of the displays at the festival.
However, it was serious about its message. “It (marijuana law reform) really is not crazy, if you stop to think about it for a second,” volunteer Sean Randall said.
Earth Day, he said, was a rare opportunity to remind lawmakers, and the people of Columbia, of the importance of a medical marijuana law.
“Any exposure that we can get to a larger segment of the population is going to be a good thing,” Randall said. “There are people who are sick and dying. All they need is medicine to give them some relief.”
Human rights was another topic tackled by the exhibitors. The festival also serves to address human rights issues, said Cindy Mustard of the Voluntary Action Center, which is one of the Earth Day Fair organizers.
“There are women suffering sexual trafficking and immigrant workers being turned into slaves. So if you can’t stop the abuse of the women in your community, the abuse of your children and other people’s children then you are not able to do any other thing,” said Robin Remington of The Central Missouri Human Trafficking Coalition. It was the first time her group has joined the event.
Dave Collins, a member of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said there was a lack of equal opportunities for gay people.
“The environment is created by people. How can they have a happy, clean environment if people are oppressed?” Collins asked.
The balmy spring weather – a sharp contrast to the rain and chilliness of the previous Sunday when the event was originally scheduled – was also a boon to those who attended. Children and adults lolled about on the grass, hula-hooped and listened to the bands performing in Peace Park.
Organizers estimated that about 10,000 people attended the event.
“People are now more interested because it's very inexpensive to have a booth here compared to other places,” Mustard said.
Earth Day Street Fair coordinator Mark Haim said people everywhere need to be more aware of preserving the environment. “We are a very forward-thinking community compared to many others. I'd like to say that the glass is half-full, but we do have a long way to go,” he said.
Eco-avenue area coordinator Catherine Gardner said there was an increase of about 20 booths this year because environmental issues are in the news more. “The Bush administration was not very interested in the environment, but Obama put something right away,” Gardner said.
The Obama administration in March reversed some of the global warming-related policies of former president George W. Bush, a move that drew praise from environmentalists. Obama has already moved to allow states to enact tougher vehicle emissions rules, something Bush opposed.
Gardner added that Earth Day is all about being thankful for everything the Earth provides.
“It provides everything," Gardner said. "There isn't a single thing that Earth doesn't provide, and I sometimes feel that people forget that.”