I don’t want to seem like a grouch. If you care about the environment and you’ve watched the Bush administration mine, clear-cut, drill, and fib its way through the past eight years, a party is most definitely in order when the White House changes hands. And if you throw a mega-event in the name of the environment, you’ll need to tout how earth-friendly you’ll be during the festivities.

It seems to me that earth-friendliness might start with not having four massive parties. But that’s exactly what’s going on here in the nation’s capital.

Saturday night saw the Green Inaugural Ball: MaximumCelebration, Minimum Impact. The event was at the Mellon Auditorium, which is fortuitously located in the same building as the EPA (not exactly a place that’s had a lot of environmental balls in recent years, if you know what I mean). The cable channel Planet Green is sponsoring the event, though it’s not on the network’s broadcast schedule, according to Planet Green spokesman Brian Hughes. The ball’s website lists a litany of eco acts of penance, from recyclable and reusable linens and cutlery, to a solar-powered web hoster. Tickets went for $500 apiece, with 5% promised to environmental charities, leaving a scant $475 to cover costs.

If you could have been green in two places at once, there was a competing event on Saturday: The Cool Inaugural Ball was tossed on a more modest, less impactful scale, with tickets only $75 in advance or $100 at the door at a venue in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, with proceeds going to the Sierra Club and local DC climate change efforts. Since this one was mostly a subway-traveling crowd, there’s no lecture about carbon footprints on the website, but they instead sold an opportunity to sing karaoke with the evening’s band. This is clearly a more modest, community-based event, so if you're keeping score, we're putting it in a different category than the other four reported here.

But tonight (Monday) will be the Big Green Smackdown. In one corner, former Vice President Al Gore gets to show off how green his event is.

To minimize confusion, this one’s also called the Green Inaugural Ball. The website offers a link to offset the carbon footprint left by your formal-attire shoes: A $14 dollar donation to a Native American wind farm or dairy farm methane project will erase a ton’s worth of your carbon footprint. Then again, if you’re a little skeptical about the carbon-offset business, staying home might erase even more than that. Performers like Melissa Etheridge will appear, and a long list of corporate and non-profit sponsors include Google, Wal-Mart, and the Wilderness Society. Spokespeople for this ball say their tickets sold out in “15 minutes”, but are guarding info on the ticket price like it’s a state secret. A ticketholder told me they paid $250 each for their tickets.

And in the opposite, but presumably equally well-intentioned corner: The International Conservation Caucus Foundation is providing a second Ball in EPA's neighborhood at the Mellon Auditorium. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are on the bill for this one, as are celebs like Robert Duvall and Bo Derek. Exxon-Mobil, viewed by many as a staunch foe of action on global warming, is a major sponsor. So is Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Really. No ticket price info was forthcoming on this one.

Finally on Tuesday, there’s the Environmental and Clean Energy Inaugural Ball at the Sequoia Restaurant in Georgetown. It’s the granddaddy of them all, in its sixth incarnation. The first one was for the other President George Bush, whom you may recall campaigned as the “Environmental President.” What the Rose Bowl is to Bowls, this one is to eco-balls, with advisory committees littered with environmental group leaders and a bi-partisan posse of senators and congressman. Lisa Jackson, Obama’s pick for EPA Administrator, is listed as a special guest, along with Darryl Hannah and Glenn Close (two of my all-time favorite earth-friendly actresses with guys’ first names). Prominent on the sponsors’ list are appendages of America’s ethanol industry. Corn-based ethanol has been on the receiving end of a two-year barrage of criticism: There’s serious doubt that it saves a whit of energy over gasoline, and its environmental liabilities are huge, from dubious land use questions to a mounting stream of pesticides and fertilizers exiting the Corn Belt and leaving a thousand-mile trail of pollution from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. According to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group, ethanol also sucks up about two-thirds of the federal subsidies and tax credits available for renewable energy. So let the ball begin, at $200 bucks a ticket.

President Obama is not expected to show up at any of these galas. I’m following his lead, having last worn a tux at my brother’s wedding in 1975. In a time of dire economic stress, and a make-it-or-break-it time for climate change and other crucial green issues, I’m pretty sure these events -- four of them opulent -- don’t send the right message about conserving, or about conservationists. Instead of four balls, I think I’ll just take a walk.



Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Media Mayhem: Ball four!
Enviros stage (at least) four lavish, environment-saving events to ring in the Obama administration.