Could We Return to the Original Earth Day?

Environmental issues remain one of the last wedges in the American culture wars

I never get tired of recalling the story of the original Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans spontaneously turned out for thousands of largely uncoordinated community actions to demonstrate their concern for our one and only planet. Some people planted gardens, others cleaned up local streams and beaches, many organized or attended teach-ins. In New York, more than one million people marched through the streets; an estimated one-in-ten Americans participated in some way or another. And all of it organized on a shoestring budget by a bunch of idealistic twenty-somethings and a US Senate backbencher. The outpouring of popular energy tapped into a deep uneasiness about the havoc we were wreaking on natural systems and galvanized political leaders to pass a raft of landmark environmental laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Protection Action. The first Earth Day and the legislation that followed represent the ideal of citizen activism.

1970 Earth Day posterPhoto courtesy The first Earth Day and the legislation that followed represent the ideal of citizen activism.

It’s hard for environmentalists not to look back on that success without a sense of poignancy. Would it be possible to pull off something similar today? And if not, then why not?

Nicholas Lemann grapples with that question in an essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, starts with an assumption that few environmental strategists would argue with. “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer and better connected than it was in 1970,” he writes. “It’s also vastly less successful.” Lemann goes on to offer what has become a common explanation (at least among grassroots environmentalists) for greens’ current lack of success: an overreliance on lawyers and DC policy wonks, too much attention on maintaining Capitol Hill access, an overabundance of professionalism and a deficit of passion. While I have huge respect for most of the Big Green groups, I’ve made this critique myself. It can often seem that too many environmental outfits dedicate too much attention to Washington’s “inside game,” at the expense of congressional district-by-congressional district on-the-ground organizing.

I wonder, though, if there’s not something more at work here. Perhaps greens are struggling to achieve their political goals because environmentalism remains one of the last hot button issues of the American culture wars that began in the Sixties and Seventies. Many of the social and political issues that divided people then — gay rights, US militarism, women’s role in the home and the workplace, and marijuana use — have evolved toward a more progressive consensus. Not so environmentalism. Americans’ views on the importance of environmental protection are more polarized than ever before. If Archie Bunker were around today, he might have a gay cousin, a pal with a medical marijuana card, a mixed race grandkid, and a knee-jerk suspicion of the US overreaching abroad. But he’d still hate those damn tree-huggers.

By way of evidence, let’s do some (polling) numbers.

Americans’ attitudes toward gay marriage is one of the clearest examples of how a divisive issue has mellowed. More than 40 years after the Stonewall protests (and just eight years after the GOP used gay marriage as a wedge issue to help deliver George W. Bush a second term), a majority of Americans say they support same-sex marriages. According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, 58 percent of respondents are OK with gay marriages, an astounding leap from the 37 percent who answered in the affirmative just 10 years ago.

Popular views on marijuana have also done a clear about-face. If you were smoking pot 40 or 20 years ago, you almost certainly would have been branded a hippy. Not anymore. Now, an after-dinner puff is positively mainstream and even tolerated among some segments of the Washington political class (at least judging by this WaPo Style piece). The same ABC-Washington Post poll mentioned above shows that 52 percent of people now support marijuana legalization.

Contemporary attitudes about the role of the US military abroad would also be unrecognizable to the culture warriors from another age. To be sure, foreign policy views still track political leanings; progressives in general are more dovish and conservatives are more hawkish. But yesterday’s ideological battles no longer have the same clear-cut lines; it’s harder to predict someone’s views on the military just by knowing their larger political sympathies. Burned by the Bush presidency’s misadventures, a growing number of self-described conservatives are newly cautious about overseas military deployments. The US military remains a conservative bastion, but that doesn’t mean it’s still a Republican stronghold. Today just over a third of service members say they support the GOP, down from half in 2006, in part because of the new isolationist instinct among conservatives. The Oval Office is occupied by a drone-wielding Democrat — and the most prominent opponent of the imperial presidency is a Republican from Kentucky. On the op-ed pages, at least, the more hippy humanitarian-interventionists beat up the hardhat isolationists. Times change.

Earth Day 1970 in North CarolinaPhoto courtesy North Carolina State ArchivesPeople gather trash from the streets during the first Earth Day in 1970 in North Carolina.

Gender issues are still very complex, of course. While a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to have an abortion, some states continue to restrict reproductive rights. Gender equity at home and in the workplace remains a work in progress — a fact underscored by the hullabaloo surrounding Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Yes, there are still some retrograde troglodytes — but surely it’s progress that they are routinely shamed and crushed at the ballot box whenever they open up their big, fat mouths. A Seventies-era feminist in the US today would likely be as bewildered as Rip Van Winkle. More women today prefer to work outside the home than to stay at home and take care of the family — a reversal from as recently as 1992. Today more women graduate from college than men (though they earn less). And women can now serve in combat in the military — a policy change that is overwhelmingly popular.

What about the environment? On environmental issues, Americans are leaning backward and divided.

Gallup’s long-term tracking poll of Americans’ attitudes on the environment is sober reading for anyone who cares about our stewardship of this planet. To wit:

• In 1990, 71 percent of respondents said protecting the environment should take priority over the economy; today, only 43 percent think so, while 48 percent of people say the economy is more important.

• In 2001, 77 percent of respondents said they worried about the environment “a great deal” or a “fair amount.” Today the percentage of people who worry about the environment is 69 percent.

• 68 percent of Americans in 1992 thought the government was doing “too little” to protect the environment. Today that number is 47 percent.

For me, this next statistic is one of the most worrisome, as it reveals an erosion of environmental concern in the ideological middle. Since 2000, the percentage of people who describe themselves as environmental activists has stayed roughly steady (from 17 to 16 percent). But the number of those who say they are “sympathetic but not active” has experienced a sharp decrease. Fifty-five percent of Americans were environmental sympathizers in 2000; now only 42 percent of Americans are environmental sympathizers. The percentage of people who describe themselves as “unsympathetic” has doubled.

Yes, popular attitudes toward global warming are beginning to turnaround — but that’s only good news in comparison with recent years, when many Americans seemed to slip down the denialist rabbit hole.

According to a Pew Center report published in 2012, views on environmental protection have “arguably been the most pointed area of polarization.” Twenty years ago there was almost no partisan difference when it came environmental protection. As recently as 2003, Republicans and Democrats averaged about a 13 percentage points apart on environmental issues. Today the difference is 39 points.

So why has the environment become even more polarizing while differences on other emotional issues have faded or — as is the case with the role of the military — become ideologically scrambled?

The political power of the carbon barons can’t be underestimated. The campaign to discredit climate science has been well-funded, well coordinated — and successful. If you don’t want to believe in climate science because Al Gore annoys you, there’s an entire alternative universe (Fox News, et. al.) to confirm your bias. In short, propaganda works.

Another factor, I think, has to do with the professionalism of the environmental movement that Lemann details in his New Yorker piece. Toward the end of the essay, he writes: “In the decades since Earth Day, Americans have become attuned to forms of social justice of which we used to be oblivious — the latest example is gay marriage, and the enlargement of the circle of concern that it stands for. Yet the cultural and economic distance between the top of American society and the broad middle has grown enormously. Political distances have grown, too.” What Lemann is hinting at here — but for some reason doesn’t come right out and say — is that the technocratic and uber-rationalist bent of American environmental organizations plays right into the old culture war script. Just listen to how easily the phrase “elitist environmentalist” rolls off some people’s tongues (here, here, and here, for example). Or look at how organic food is often portrayed as the aesthetic obsession of an affluent clique. Cynics have done a fine job of painting environmentalism as a political affectation for the eggheads in Cambridge and Berkeley, a concern that the plain old folks in the mythical “real America” shouldn’t care about. Gay marriage might not work as a What’s the Matter with Kansas bait and switch anymore, but the environment still does.

It would be unfair, however, to blame the well-meaning smarty policy wonks and attorneys for fueling a caricature. Perhaps the most important reason why environmental issues have become the new culture war hot button is because environmentalism — at its best — is, in fact, at war with much of American culture.

I know that’s hard to believe, especially when you consider how hard the green groups have worked to appear “mainstream” and when you examine how anodyne and corporatized Earth Day has become. But remember this: At its emotional and intellectual core environmentalism is doing more to contest the market fundamentalism of contemporary society than just about any other progressive movement out there. The neoliberal flirtations of some Big Green groups notwithstanding, environmentalism continues to challenge the central assumption of corporate capitalism — the ecologically bankrupt idea that the economy can keep growing forever.

In contrast, the LGBT and feminist movements are largely “inclusionist,” eager to see that their constituencies get an equal share of the market’s spoils. Ditto the weakened American labor movement, once the main countervailing force to capitalist excesses but long since an “accommodationist” partner to big business. All of those progressive movements are fundamentally bought into the idea of growing the economy to have more slices of pie, and making sure that no one is discriminated against from having their own slice. I have no doubt that many Americans enjoyed the banter of Will Truman and Jack McFarlane on Will & Grace because the characters’ aspirations were so in tune with consumption-driven mainstream. The one, you might remember, was a lawyer; the other worked at Banana Republic.

The environmental movement — when it is its most honest — is advocating a whole other set of aspirations. Less stuff, for starters. More time, too — including more time outside and less in front of the television and computer. A slower, more humane pace to work. Careful stewardship in place of constant accumulation. An end to GDP growth as the measure of progress. All of which goes against the grain of American culture. It shouldn’t be surprising to see a polarizing backlash.

We’ve come to the point where the essayist is supposed to wrap up with a pithy closure or some kind of epigrammatic prescription. Problem is, I don’t have either. I don’t have a clear idea for how to resolve the polarization on the environment (minus generational expiration, um “cohort replacement”, that is). All I have is a hunch that for the environmental movement to have a chance at ever repeating the first Earth Day, it will have to stay true to the ideals that often put it at odds with our TV-and-commercials society, working doggedly in the hope that the truth will out. That’s not a political strategy, I know. It’s just the spirit that fuels a fighting faith.

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