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Counting Wins and Losses on Earth Day
Three prominent environmental activists reflect on the state of the American green movement for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day

Counting Wins and Losses on Earth Day

Three prominent environmental activists reflect on the state of the American green movement for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day

Three prominent environmental activists reflect on the state of the American green movement for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and with it, the symbolic beginning of the environmental movement. The event was the culmination of a number of trends that began in the 1950s when scientists began to note how industrialization was impacting on the Earth’s ecosystem. Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which documented the effects of pesticides on the environment, caused an international sensation and led eventually to the banning of the pesticide DDT in the United States.

By 1970, concerns about population growth, mass starvation, and water and air pollution had coalesced into a movement to support a cleaner, and saner, environment.

All this and more is told in Earth Days, which will be broadcast on PBS’s American Experience on April 19. Director Robert Stone’s film not only tells how the green movement began, but delves into it successes and failures since that seminal day in 1970.

“What we were trying to do is create a brand-new public consciousness that would cause the rules of the game to change,” Denis Hayes, national coordinator of the first Earth Day, says in the film.

Hayes is one of nearly a dozen key environmental activists interviewed in the documentary. caught up with three of them and asked them to assess the state of environmentalism in 2010:

  • Paul Ehrlich authored the best-selling book The Population Bomb in 1968. He is currently the Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.
  • Stephanie Mills became famous thanks to her 1969 Mills College commencement speech, “The Future Is A Cruel Hoax.” She is a writer and editor who has been involved with Planned Parenthood and currently is an advocate for bio-regionalism, a movement dedicated to locally sustainable economies and cultures.
  • Denis Hayes was the main organizer of the original Earth Day. He has since become a major proponent of solar energy and continues to chair the board of the international Earth Day Network.

Miller-McCune: Forty years after the first Earth Day, what do you think are the biggest successes and failures of the environmental movement? Why?

Paul Ehrlich: Success — getting the environmental movement onto the political agenda. Basic environmental legislation (Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, etc.). Failure — to get enough attention paid to two of the most fundamental drivers of environmental deterioration, human population size and growth, and over-consumption by the rich.

Stephanie Mills: Given the state of the planet, with a human population nearly doubled since the first Earth Day, with extinction now outpacing evolution, and ocean acidification and climate change intensifying, it doesn’t look like the environmental movement has been terribly successful in limiting the damage of industrial civilization or saving the Earth. Some successes:

In the U.S., the Endangered Species Act stands out as an unequivocal biocentric law that activists are using to great effect to rein in heedless development and protect biodiversity, which, ultimately, means protecting the conditions human beings require in order to flourish.

Also in the U.S., the environmental justice movement has integrated campaigns against pollution, and for social and racial justice, somewhat broadening the larger movement’s purview. Far more solidarity across class lines is called for, though.

Denis Hayes: As late as the 1960s, there was no real awareness of the large ecological issues and their relevance to humans. Concerns over DDT or wilderness or 12-lane freeways were thought of as independent, unrelated issues. Now these issues, and thousands of others, are seen as part of an integrated whole, and they have traction all over the planet. We understand with increasing clarity what humans are doing to the environment, and we are coming to appreciate what this means for the well-being of society. In scores of countries, including the United States, strong laws have been passed and are being enforced to safeguard important aspects of the environment.

The movement has had much less success addressing global environmental issues than the local and national issues. Most people are not aware of the enormity of the human impacts on, for example, the carbon cycle, the hydrological cycle, the nitrogen and potassium cycles, extinction rates, ocean acidification and overfishing, loss of topsoil, and the other trends that are undermining nature’s health and services.

Similarly, we have failed to articulate a persuasive alternative vision of how to have a healthy, prosperous, innovative society in the emerging era of constraints. National policies virtually everywhere are guided by an assumption that energy use and the physical throughput of economic production will continue to grow exponentially. Even the most scientifically illiterate economists understand at some level that this cannot continue forever.

M-M: Is there any one program or aspect of environmentalism that seems to be most accepted by the population at large?

Ehrlich: Recycling, because it’s easy and makes one feel good.

Mills: Recycling, because it doesn’t involve fundamental change.

Hayes: There is widespread acceptance of those environmental measures that reduce or eliminate things that are clear, convincing, immediate threats to human health. Few people will argue that we should restore tetraethyl lead to gasoline or allow dioxins to be dumped into rivers. There is also almost universal support for protecting the national parks.

M-M: Climate change naysayers seem to be gaining ground these days, especially in this country, where polls show that the majority of Americans are not convinced that human activity contributes to global warming. Why do you think this is, and what can be done about it?

Ehrlich: [This is] largely due to a well-funded and expertly handled campaign of disinformation funded mostly by the major culprits — especially the fossil fuel industries. Start requiring realistic science education in schools and universities, and try to inject at least a little into the mass media.

Mills: Because climate change is being addressed, however ineffectually, in the political arena, the public may believe that it’s as negotiable a matter of debate and compromise as a spending bill rather than an intransigent matter of physics, chemistry and widespread scientific consensus. Denial — the implications are nothing I want to believe, either; and genuine remedies portend a dramatic restructuring of everyday life — and the global economy.

The fact that responsible scientists can only say that phenomena like melting glaciers, prolonged droughts, increasingly severe storms and earlier onset of spring are consistent with their models, rather than declaring a simple cause-and-effect relationship leaves room for ambiguity.

Disinformational PR campaigns handsomely funded by fossil fuel producers probably account for much of the naysaying.

What can be done? Phenomenal mobilizations like the 350 campaign [an international movement designed to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis] and other efforts by civil society groups help, but until ecology can trump economics, adequate understanding and action are unlikely.

Hayes: The number of people disputing the reality of climate change does not appear to be changing radically here or abroad. What has changed in the United States is a growing percentage of people who believe either that humans are not primarily responsible for climate change or else that, on balance, climate change may be more good than bad. The reasons for this are legion: The fossil fuel industry, operating under the aegis of the Global Climate Coalition, spent huge sums of money over many years fostering uncertainty over the science.

The reporting techniques of the modern mainstream media led them to strive more for an artificial type of balance (he said; she said) regardless of the ascertainable facts than to weigh the evidence, apply a crap detector and provide some guidance to their readers.

Talk radio and blogs are designed to rev up their audiences with rhetorical red meat.

The best scientists behind the last three decades of climate research have rarely taken their messages directly to the public, and when they have they have often proven to be very poor communicators.

Some climate reports have contained some mistakes. Rather than view this as a natural part of the scientific process where errors are caught and corrected as the process moves forward, even trivial errors are seized upon as evidence of perfidy.

Finally, high school and even undergraduate science education in the United States is often embarrassingly poor.

M-M: Are other industrialized nations more or less environmentally conscious? Why?

Hayes: Certainly most other industrialized nations have adopted more aggressive climate policies than the United States, but in lieu of U.S. action, their enforcement has ranged from lackluster to lousy. There is also a huge swing in many nations when governments change — the equivalent of a shift from the environmental policies of George W. Bush to those of Barack Obama. In the early 1970s, I would have said the global leaders environmentally were the United States and the Nordic nations. The U.S. explicitly abandoned its leadership in fields ranging from solar energy to pollution prevention, and it remains to be seen whether we can return to the prominence we once enjoyed.

M-M: What do you see for the near future? Do you feel the younger generation, those now in college or in their 20s, will make a difference, or are we essentially back to square one when it comes to environmental consciousness?

Ehrlich: We’re not back to square one, since most young people at least know there are environmental issues. But we’re in much worse shape than we were [in the 1960s] because all significant trends are moving in the wrong direction, and most are accelerating. I hope the youngsters will make a difference, but I don’t see how they can without understanding the problems.

Mills: [I see] rather a lot of difficulty and confusion as the effects of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and economic collapse beset us and the power structure keeps throwing scarce resources into the effort to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless I think there’s a can-do willingness to power down, apply ingenuity, re-localize production for basic needs and restore community throughout society and across generations, and that it’s growing. The potential for a great transformation, diversely manifested, is inherent in these crises, and people sense this.

We can’t be back to square one. The world has changed so dramatically and in so many ways, for good and ill. Young people today are going forward into a whole other biosphere than the one we Earth-Day-1970 geezers were born into. So many of the young are ecologically aware planetary citizens, insisting that another world is possible.

Hayes: The greatest remaining challenges and opportunities are at the global level — and there is substantial evidence that the younger generation has a far less parochial worldview than its parents. Part of this is doubtless due to having grown up amid an information revolution that allowed them to become part of a world culture with affinity groups of various types that span the planet. Whereas the first Earth Day dealt principally with threats to individuals — their children, their neighborhood, their watershed — Earth Days are increasingly becoming more reflective of the whole “Earth.”