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World: Earth Day To Be Celebrated Across The Globe

Earth Day, celebrated on April 22, falls on Saturday this year, and will be celebrated with parades, tree-planting ceremonies, nature walks, conferences, and live Internet link-ups in over 150 nations. RFE/RL's Jeremy Bransten looks at the significance of Earth Day, as well as its origins and purpose.

Prague, 21 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States. Millions of people marched in cities across the country to demand stricter legislation from the government covering land, water and air pollution.

One of the results of those protests was the establishment of the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency, which helped set new environmental standards in the United States and raised the profile of ecology on the political scene.

Thirty years later Earth Day -- like so many phenomena of the modern age -- has gone global, linking hundreds of millions of people, civic organizations and ecology groups across the world for the purpose of raising global environmental awareness.

Saturday's gathering in Washington is still expected to be one of the world's biggest Earth Day events, with tens of thousands of people due to flock to the city center to view exhibits explaining such concepts as recycling, organic farming and alternative energy. Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio will also entertain the crowds in the evening from a stage that organizers say will be powered solely by non-polluting, renewable energy sources.

But countries across Europe and Asia are also actively organizing their own Earth Day events. In more than 150 cities across Italy, for example, cars were banned on different days this month from central areas, as residents and visitors were urged to ride bicycles and use public transportation. Tokyo, Rome, Seoul, Jakarta and Sydney plan similar coordinated action on Saturday.

Olinka Gjigas is a project manager at the Hungarian-based Regional Environment Center. The center is a non-profit organization, jointly set up by the European Union, the United States, and Hungary in 1990 to assist in solving environmental problems in Central and Eastern Europe.

Gjigas told RFE/RL about Earth Day events that the Regional Environment Center helped coordinate in Central Europe.

"For example, in Croatia, this whole past week -- all the way until Sunday -- is called 'Solar Week,' and several non-governmental organizations came together to organize all sorts of roundtables and lectures. They are publishing a solar bulletin, promoting equipment and renewable energy sources, trying to popularize solar energy use and generally raise public awareness about it. Then a similar thing is happening in Poland, and there is going to be a big event on Saturday -- a so-called 'Clean Energy Fair' and it's expected to have 60,000 people attending it."

The theme of this year's Earth Day across the world is clean energy. Indeed, global concerns have grown sharply recently about a rise in temperatures known as the "greenhouse effect," which is attributed to the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. The Earth's protective ozone layer continues to thin, and parts of the polar icecaps show signs of melting, raising fears of rising sea levels and climate change.

Failure to preserve the environment could have dire future consequences. But some of the direct economic impact of environmental abuse is already being felt. Overfishing and pollution in the Black and Caspian seas, for example, have left thousands of fishermen jobless. Floods caused by erosion due to the felling of forests regularly claim lives and cause heavy property damage in countries from China to Ukraine.

Recent cyanide spills at gold-mining operations in Romania and Kyrgyzstan highlight the danger of putting quick profits ahead of long-term planning.

But Earth Day is not only about pressuring governments to change their policies. It is also about getting ordinary citizens to change their daily habits -- to make a positive environmental impact. Since the first Earth Day was marked 30 years ago, the Earth's population has nearly doubled. Gjigas notes that if every individual were to take small steps to save the environment, the overall impact would be significant.

"They can start in their own homes somehow, by doing little things like using less water, using less electricity, then going on and trying to join an NGO and help the local government in doing what they are doing. And slowly get involved at the local level and try to do something so that things get moving on a higher level. Maybe then something will be changed."

Globalization, maligned by some as a tool of multinational corporations, has nevertheless helped bring people together from around the world, thanks to inventions such as the Internet. It has also raised the profile of events such as Earth Day and the environmental movement in general.