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A grounded view of Atlanta 

An appropriate stop for Earth Day's founder

Chalk up another golden reputation award for the city to busy to breathe.

"Atlanta is on everybody's short list as one of the places that has made some of the most unfortunate decisions as far as sprawl is concerned," Earth Day founder Denis Hayes says, when asked his impression of the city prior to Thursday's visit here. "It certainly says that without intelligent, smart-growth planning you can pretty much replicate Houston everywhere."

Ouch.

Perhaps, it's appropriate that Hayes, the lead organizer of Earth Day 2000, is dropping in on the driving capital of North America just before the big event, which falls on a Saturday. After all, the theme this year is clean energy - something Atlanta could use a dose of as it heads into yet another summer of ozone smog, asthma attacks and congested highways.

That single theme is a departure from the first Earth Day in 1970 and from the 20th anniversary celebration in 1990, both of which signaled a broad-based concern about the environment and featured events covering every conceivable tree-hugging issue.

This year in Atlanta, Earth Day events organized by the environmental community will be highlighted by voluntary activities Saturday morning all over the city organized by Hands On Atlanta and an Earth Day Unplugged festival Saturday afternoon in Piedmont Park that will focus on clean energy and energy conservation. Some businesses are organizing their own Earth Day events, as are area colleges.

Hayes says the universal energy theme, together with the grassroots organizing advantages of the Internet, will give this year's event a stronger presence in places like China and Africa. At the same time, he notes that Earth Day this year must compete for attention with Easter. And today's top environmental challenges, which involve global problems like overpopulation, widespread extinctions and the greenhouse effect, don't motivate Americans as easily as the leaking landfill or smelly smokestack on the edge of the neighborhood.

"We're now moving into issues that are much broader in their concern, and they're more difficult to relate to," he says.

On that score, however, Atlanta may be able to show a little leadership: Solutions to the region's air-quality problems are bound to be tied to conservation and clean energy, which environmentalists in turn tout as the most logical steps to reverse global warming brought about by the greenhouse effect.

Then, of course, there's the good news that Hayes sees as he looks from the outside at Atlanta. It's a city with a track record of success when it comes to grappling with difficult social issues; witness the civil rights movement.

"Atlanta," he notes hopefully, "is known for bold, dynamic leadership."

Dennis Hayes will make two public appearances Thursday, April 21, at Georgia Tech ... and will speak to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Thursday

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