“On its anniversary, Earth Day is worth not just celebrating but also studying – as a story with political lessons.”
This is the last sentence in a thought-provoking essay by Nicholas Lemann, “When the Earth Moved,” in The New Yorker for April 15, 2013. The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and Lemann identifies, as the impetus for what has become a traditional part of our springtime, a speech that Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc) gave in Seattle on September 20, 1969.
Lemann notes the broad and bi-partisan support that made the first Earth Day “teach-ins” a success, and the stellar legislative consequences of its consciousness-raising: creation of the E. P. A. (1970), and passage of the Clean Air Act (1970), then the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). “Throughout the nineteen-seventies, mostly during the Republican Administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another, establishing national controls on air and water pollution.”
So where are we now? “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?”
For many years, the environmental movement has had trouble making headway. Lemann singles out one “humiliating defeat” in the summer of 2010, with the collapse of efforts to bring a bill addressing greenhouse gases and climate change forward for debate in the Senate.
In his account of what went wrong, Lemann finds fault first and foremost with environmentalists themselves, for not staying true to the spirit of the original Earth Day organizers and participants. I disagree with this assessment. Lemann leaves out of the picture some monumental changes – demographic shifts, economic turmoil and reorganization, nothing short of a revolution in politics, and several distracting wars – that have conspired to keep environmental issues out of their rightful place in our national consciousness and our political agenda.
I’ll discuss, too briefly, a few of the problems faced by the environmental movement, after giving a little attention to what it has going for it.
First, I think environmentalists still possess the spirit and the organizational ability that they had at the end of the sixties. They aren’t strong in every community: in many places, for all sorts of reasons, grassroots organizers are apt to find that there’s no ‘there’ there. But communities of all sorts – urban, rural, suburban – are coming back, organizing to face problems (some of them environmental) and improve the quality of local life.
The best efforts in pursuit of a positive future, both for the environment and for people, are still local, spontaneous and decentralized, in keeping with Senator Nelson’s vision.
Many environmentalists have learned that their old legislative agendas were too narrow: that (for example) income inequality, food security, public transportation, zoning policies, and affordable housing are issues with environmental implications. So environmentalists are apt to wear new hats, have new agendas, and need new skills and new alliances.
The places that environmental concerns and pro-environment activities occupy within Sustainable Bainbridge offer a case in point. Many members of the Board and participants in our activities may not think of themselves as environmentalists first and foremost, and that seems to me a good sign, a positive response to many interconnected opportunities.
Now let’s look at some of the problems environmentalists face – problems beyond their ability to solve, or to work around, in the near future.
One is the roller-coaster evolution of our economy and its impact on opportunities to gain ground through education and hard work. It was upwardly mobile middle-class citizens and their young adult children who formed the crowds at Earth Day events back in the seventies, and politicians competed for their support. Their ranks are thinner today; they are disillusioned, and many have lost faith in the political process. In the minds of all but a few, environmental concerns will always be trumped by economic worries, money-saving strategies, and anxieties about the near future.
People opposed to environmental regulations, and in general to the regulatory role of government – ordinary citizens, small business owners, CEOs, pundits and other shapers of political behavior – are much more numerous, better organized, and wealthier than they used to be. Their money talks, and its message is unequivocal.
On a host of environmental issues – greenhouse gases and the impacts of climate change chief among them – far too many people are confused, and more frightened than enlightened by the little they know.
Scientists such as James Hansen and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben have reached large audiences with very clear messages, and responsible steps are being taken at state and local levels, but in Washington, D C, too many legislators do the bidding of nay-sayers and industry lobbyists, blocking movement toward more sustainable policies on energy and the environment.
As on gun control, so with the causes and far-reaching consequences of climate change: obstruction rules, and destruction continues. It is legitimate to doubt that clear thinking and democratic processes can prevail before it’s too late to prevent a collapse.
I think we have to shift the focus from “What went wrong?” to “What can be done?” And here on Bainbridge Island, a lot is being done. Sustainable Bainbridge is in the middle of it, and in a position to do more, with more help.
Here on Bainbridge, Earth Day is observed, actively, for more than one day. Let’s extend its impact indefinitely, and make “sustainability” more than a slogan.