Tree Slackers:

As Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force puts the final touches on its report -- widely expected to endorse drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and increasing funds for oxymoronic "clean coal" technology -- one would expect environmental groups to be getting ready to shred Bush's sombrero. I wouldn't count it. If recent (non)events are any indication, the enviros won't do anything more than give the newspapers a few angry quotes.


Take Bush's much-publicized 100-day mark, for example. He had been in office for a little more than three months and had invited Congress to a special lunch in the Rose Garden to celebrate. That morning, CNN was camped out on the White House lawn; some 200 congressmen were making their way down from Capitol Hill in air-conditioned buses; and a whole slew of impressionable Japanese tourists toting camcorders had just unloaded onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The morning was ripe for a protest that environmental groups planned to hold at the White House at the exact moment the congressmen were eating their Angus beef and southwest chicken.


But the group gathered in Lafayette Park was surprisingly small. More than a dozen environmental groups were supposed to be represented, but they'd only managed to stir up about 75 protesters. And this was definitely not a protest for the general public. Members of the group carried lacquered signs; they yelled loudly; they were a presence -- for the television cameras. With the White House across the street as a backdrop, the protesters had angled themselves and their signs to face NBC and CNN as they explained the outrage of the American public over Bush's anti-environmental actions. An actual member of the American public walked by and explained helpfully to her friend, "I think it's a protest about Greenpeace." But she couldn't really tell, since the environmentalists were standing with their backs to her. And the congressmen who supposedly were the target audience would have to watch it on the news, because the protesters packed up and left by noon -- before the legislators actually sat down to lunch.


I hadn't felt this disappointed since Earth Day, when the only protesters on the National Mall had come for the National Organization for Women's abortion rights rally.


There are plenty of people who think George Bush is the anti-Christ when it comes to protecting the environment. On this single issue, his poll numbers are embarrassingly low (according to a Newsweek poll, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the environment). From arsenic in the water to salmonella in school lunches, he's made it ridiculously easy to stir up public ire about his pro-business pandering. So, with half their job done for them by the new president, why does it seem like environmental groups are dropping the ball?


"We've sort of been surprised in terms of the speed with which he's acted to reject environmental safeguards and the audacity with which he's broken campaign promises," said Allen Mattison, a Sierra Club spokesman.


"I don't think that people thought everything would be this bad after 100 days," said Brent Blackwood, president of Friends of the Earth.


Why the hell not? In Texas, Bush's environmental record was abominable. The city of Houston frequently has worse air pollution than Los Angeles. But instead of addressing the problem with stricter clean air regulations, Bush set up a system of voluntary compliance for corporate polluters. This guy's current environmental policies didn't come out of left field.


Pro-choice groups had more of a reason to be surprised by Bush's tendency to govern from the far right. There was never an indication he'd be as conservative as he has been, especially when his wife told Katie Couric on national television she supports Roe v. Wade. Yet when Bush nominated former Missouri senator and staunch abortion foe John Ashcroft for attorney general, the pro-choice groups reacted swiftly. They began a campaign of pressure that, even now, four months later, hasn't let up. Some groups are still sending wire hangers to Democrats who voted for Ashcroft's confirmation.


When George Bush pulled out of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, I expected a similar outpouring of rage from environmental groups. But, aside from a few terse comments in the next day's newspapers, things were quiet. Only Friends of the Earth's international groups reacted, sending more than 100,000 e-mails to the White House, at times crashing the server.


The women's groups have already declared a "state of emergency" under Bush's presidency. I thought the environmental groups would do the same, maybe using Earth Day as the kickoff. But the only ones on the mall that day were the pro-choice groups, holding their own emergency rally. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people converged on the mall for Earth Day.


"You don't want us to do that every year," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "We've got work to do." For example, the Thursday before Earth Day, Passacantando and other environmentalists blocked the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency, until the police showed up. Hardly a giant protest.


"There will be rallies," Passacantando promised. "I don't like to measure them by the number of bodies. There will be rallies in the coming years that aren't an old-fashioned attempt to fill up the Mall."


Old fashioned? Perhaps, but it seemed to work a few months ago. A horde of activists marched through the streets of Washington until they got to the headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association. They demanded that the drug industry drop its lawsuit against the government of South Africa, which was going to violate the patents of several powerful corporations to manufacture and import generic versions of AIDS drugs. The protesters stayed in front of PhRMA's headquarters through the entire lunch hour, attracting plenty of attention from passersby. That afternoon of public embarrassment wasn't the only reason the drug industry eventually dropped the lawsuit, but it probably helped.


"Don't always measure us by tactics that have worked in the past," Passacantando insisted. "Look for a variety of tactics from us."


Like, for example, when Friends of the Earth sent the White House a case of bottled water with labels that read: "Warning: May cause cancer. May contain arsenic up to 50 parts per billion." Clever, yet lacking the punch of, say, the more than $1.3 million pro-choicers have given to Planned Parenthood since February -- all donated in Bush's name. That was an action that not only got the media's attention, but energized the public as well. Maybe if Friends of the Earth had let you purchase a case of the water over the Internet? It would be a big hit at parties, and you could keep the bottle around as a reminder for a long time. Until 2004, even.


"We're just disorganized," admitted Dennis Hayes, chairman of the Earth Day Network, at a press conference a few days before Earth Day. "We're not an organized political force yet, but with the way [Bush] is behaving, he could turn us."