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Reclaiming Earth Day: With Climate Chaos on the Horizon, the Environmental Movement Needs Traction
On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day April 22, many seasoned environmentalists are left wondering how, in recent decades, so little has actually been accomplished.
While environmental awareness has seeped into mainstream U.S. society since the 1970s — the era when 20 million people hit the streets on Earth Day to demand action — the structures of power remain largely the same. The mass mobilizations around the original Earth Day helped spur then-President Richard Nixon to sign a series of ambitious environmental laws that helped to clean contaminated waterways, saved the bald eagle from the ravages of pesticides and began to clear the air, which in the early 1960s was so polluted that people were passing out in cities across the country. Most environmental victories since then have benefited from those changes in the law, but more fundamental changes seem as distant as ever.
Today’s environmental movement is floundering, even though the stakes are even higher. While local grassroots environmental campaigns continue, the bestknown national organizations can point to few recent victories. And they have failed to demonstrate meaningful leadership around what climatologist James Hansen calls the “predominant moral issue of this century”: the struggle to prevent the catastrophic and irreversible warming of the planet.
As British journalist Johann Hari reported in The Nation in his “The Wrong Kind of Green” in March, this is partly the result of a legacy of corporate-styled environmental organizations teaming up with the world’s most polluting companies.
In response to the climate crisis, we have seen unprecedented collaboration between large environmental organizations and corporations seeking to profit from new environmental legislation. For example, the Climate Action Partnership (known as USCAP) has brought Alcoa, DuPont, General Electric and General Motors together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy to push for the “market-based” approach to climate legislation known as “cap-and-trade.” This policy would put a cap on the total amount of pollution, then allow businesses limiting their carbon dioxide emissions to sell “permits to pollute” to dirtier companies. This would create a vast, highly speculative market in carbon credits and offsets, with gigantic perks for corporations and little benefit for the planet.
It begs the question — where has the environmental movement gone wrong?
THE FIRST EARTH DAY
It turns out that the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was initially a staged event. Politicians like Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA) took the lead in crafting the first Earth Day celebration that unexpectedly brought millions of people out around the country. The events, however, were supported by establishment institutions like the Conservation Foundation, a corporate think tank founded by Laurance Rockefeller in 1948. Nixon even began the year with a proclamation saying that the 1970s would be the “environmental decade.”
Anti-Vietnam War activists argued that Earth Day (originally the Environmental Teach-In) became a devious attempt to divert national attention away from the war and from efforts to raise awareness of the common causes of war, poverty and environmental destruction. An editorial in Ramparts, the most prominent activist journal of the period, described Earth Day as, “the first step in a con game that will do little more than abuse the environment even further.”
The April 1970 Ramparts featured a striking exposé on “The Eco-Establishment,” which focused on the corporate think tanks that were helping to shape the emerging environmental legislation. “[T]oday’s big business conservation,” Ramparts editorialized, “is not interested in preserving the earth; it is rationally reorganizing for a more efficient rape of resources.”
Journalist I.F. Stone wrote in his famous investigative weekly, “[J]ust as the Caesars once used bread and circuses, so ours were at last learning to use rock-and-roll idealism and non-inflammatory social issues to turn the youth off from more urgent concerns which might really threaten the power structure.”
To everyone’s surprise, Earth Day turned out to be the largest outpouring of public sentiment on any political issue to date. It drew public attention to environmentalism as a social movement in its own right. And it set the stage to pressure Congress to pass 15 major national environmental laws over a 10-year period and establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A RUSH OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS
The origin of those 1970s environmental laws also has an underappreciated back story. Throughout the 1960s, people were responding with horror to the increasingly visible effects of smog, oil spills, pesticide contamination and other environmental assaults. Local governments responded by implementing their own, sometimes farreaching programs of environmental monitoring and enforcement. Creative environmental lawsuits established important and unanticipated precedents.
This proved costly for business, and corporate interests came to view federal intervention as a possible solution. “[T]he elite of business leadership,” reported Fortune magazine on the eve of Earth Day in 1970, “strongly desire the federal government to step in, set the standards, regulate all activities pertaining to the environment, and help finance the job with tax incentives.”
Far from an interference with business prerogatives, environmental regulation by the federal government became a way to allay public concerns while offering corporate America a menu of uniform and predictable environmental rules. The new federal rules often preempted states and localities from enforcing regulations more stringent than those advanced at the national level.
Just a decade later, President Ronald Reagan packed the new regulatory agencies’ staffs with corporate hacks who were openly hostile to their agencies’ missions. (President George W. Bush replicated this strategy in the early 2000s.) Reagan’s first EPA administrator resigned after two years in office, facing charges of contempt of Congress after replacing the agency’s senior staff with officials from companies like General Motors and Exxon and mercilessly slashing the budget. Reagan’s cartoonish Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, “introduced policies aimed at transferring control of public lands and resources to private entrepreneurs at a rate that had not been seen since the great giveaways of the 19th century,” according to former New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL STATUS QUO
Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, representatives of the largest national environmental groups became an increasingly visible and entrenched part of the Washington political scene. As the appearance of success within the system grew, organizations from the National Wildlife Federation to the Natural Resources Defense Council restructured and changed personnel so as to more effectively play the insider game. Large environmental groups worked to sustain the smooth functioning of the system, rather than challenge it. The Sierra Club grew from 80,000 to 630,000 members during the 1980s, and the conservative National Wildlife Federation reported membership gains of up to 8,000 a month, totaling nearly a million. The total budget of the 10 largest environmental groups grew from less than $10 million in 1965 to $218 million in 1985 and $514 million in 1990. Those advocating a more corporate-style or-ganizational model invariably won internal battles within the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and even Greenpeace. They increasingly avoided issues and tactics that might prove alienating to wealthy donors. By the early 1990s, even the thoroughly mainstream former editor of Audubon magazine would lament that “naturalists have been replaced by ecocrats who are more comfortable on Capitol Hill than in the woods, fields, meadows, mountains and swamps.”
Environmental groups also began their flirtation with corporate sponsorships, so aptly summarized by Hari in The Nation. In the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, activists (including this author) revealed ties between groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and a rogue’s gallery of major oil, chemical, utility and banking corporations.
THE RISE OF GREEN CONSUMERISM
By 1990, everyone seemed to want to be an environmentalist. President George H. W. Bush proclaimed himself a defender of the environment and briefly aimed to distance himself from the anti-environmental excesses of the Reagan years by adopting the first national cap-and-trade system to address the problem of acid rain. Sen. Al Gore (D-TN), the 1988 presidential primary campaign’s leading Democratic war hawk, began speaking out about global warming and other environmental threats. Britain’s reactionary Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called herself a “green.” Even the president of the World Bank won praise from environmental publications for voicing concerns about the bank’s role in environmental destruction. The Environmental Defense Fund led the way in pushing for a more aggressively “market-oriented” approach to environmental policy.
So, it was not a huge surprise when the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 became the coming-out party for a more overtly corporate brand of environmentalism. Earth Day celebrations became a virtual extravaganza of corporate hype, and “green consumerism” was the order of the day. The official overriding message was simply “change your lifestyle,” by recycling, driving less and buying green products. And while the national Earth Day organization turned down some $4 million in corporate donations that did not meet its rather “flexible” criteria, celebrations in several major U.S. cities were supported by notorious polluters such as Monsanto, Peabody Coal and Georgia Power. Corporations “greenwashed” their image, from the nuclear-power industry to the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association, by purchasing full-page advertisements proclaiming that, for them, “Every day is Earth Day.”
Some activists responded by organizing local Earth Day anniversaries of their own, focusing on local environmental struggles, urban issues, the nature of corporate power and a host of other problems that were systematically excluded from most official Earth Day events. Left Greens and Youth Greens in the Northeast initiated a call to shut down Wall Street the Monday following Earth Day and were joined by environmental justice activists, radical Earth First! organizers, ecofeminists, New York City squatters and many others. In the early morning of April 23, just after millions had participated in polite, feel-good Earth Day commemorations all across the country, hundreds converged on the New York Stock Exchange with the goal of obstructing the opening of trading on that day. Journalist Juan González, in his Daily News column, decried the weekend’s “embalming and fire sale of Earth Day,” and told his 1.2 million readers, “Certainly, those who sought to co-opt Earth Day into a media and marketing extravaganza, to make the public feel good while obscuring the corporate root of the Earth’s pollution, almost succeeded.”
The 1990 Earth Day Wall Street Action reflected the flowering of grassroots environmental activity that had emerged throughout the 1980s, partly in response to the compromises of the big environmental groups. The popular response to toxic chemical pollution — launched by the mothers of sick children living near the severely polluted Love Canal in New York — grew into a nationwide environmental justice movement that exposed the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to toxic hazards. During the lead-up to Earth Day 1990, a hundred environmental justice activists signed a letter to the eight national environmental organizations criticizing the dearth of people of color on those groups’ staffs and boards, along with their increasing reliance on corporate funding.
The Clinton-Gore administration of the 1990s perfected the art of channeling environmental rhetoric while simultaneously encouraging increased resource extraction — prefiguring Barack Obama’s recent overtures to the nuclear, oil and coal industries. As the decade ended, environmental activists made a strong showing in Seattle, as a key part of the broader coalition of social justice, labor and green groups that successfully challenged the World Trade Organization in 1999. While many of the grassroots initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s continued through the early 2000s, (see Douglas Bevington’s new book, The Rebirth of Environmentalism), others felt dismayed by the ineffectiveness of large environmental groups. This led to the continued evolution of Earth First! and other radical environmental groups that focused on direct-action tactics, rather than lobbying and policymaking.
CLIMATE ACTIVISTS TURN UP THE HEAT
Over the last few years, it appeared that the climate crisis might be ushering in a renewed wave of grassroots environmental action in the United States. A 2009 student environmental conference attracted some 3,000 participants to Washington, D.C., and the event was followed by a symbolic blockade of the city’s large coal-fired power plant. On the tenth anniversary of World Trade Organization protests in Seattle on November 30, 2009, climate justice actions across the United States included the lock-down of an intersection outside the Chicago Climate Exchange (home of the corporate-driven “voluntary” carbon market), a blockade of a major component for a new coal-fired power plant in South Carolina, protests of large banks that finance the coal industry and other mega-polluters and a rally outside the Natural Resources Defense Council’s offices to protest their aggressive advocacy for carbon markets. People in West Virginia and across southern Appalachia have stepped up resistance to the ravages of mountaintop-removal coal mining, while others across the country — from Vermont to the Navajo Nation — have redoubled their efforts against Obama’s planned expansion of the nuclear industry.
Most of 2009’s climate actions, however, were aimed at trying to influence U.N. member countries to reach a comprehensive agreement at the December U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen. The failure of diplomacy in Copenhagen deflated the energy of many activists, and the post-Copenhagen resurgence of climate actions has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, although Earth Day has become an annual ritual in some communities, as well as on many college campuses, the upcoming 40th anniversary has brought a notable scarcity of attention. One event this year highlights just how quickly corporate environmentalism has evolved from tragedy to farce. On the eve of Earth Day on April 21, participants in a “Creating Climate Wealth Summit” will attend a glitzy gala event hosted by the Carbon War Room, an exclusive alliance of elite environmentalists and financiers headed by the notorious multibillionaire Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. Branson is most celebrated these days for his experimental biofueled airplanes, along with a venture to promote outer-space tourism and public advocacy for geoengineering the climate. For only $450 (a third less for nonprofits), participants can have dinner with Branson, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and founding Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes at the new Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, just around the corner from the White House.
Meanwhile, the green marketing of products is alive and well, from clothing to Priuses to luxury ecotourism. The U.K.’s Guardian reported from a “green business” conference in London last year that “as much as 70 percent of future advertising would have an environmental focus.”
Today, right-wing pundits depict environmentalism as an elite hobby that threatens jobs, while many progressive environmentalists cite the potential for “green jobs” to help reignite economic growth. Both views are sorely missing a central element of what has made environmentalism such a compelling counter-hegemonic worldview ever since the 1970s: The promise that reorienting societies toward a renewed harmony with nature can help spur a revolutionary transformation of our world.
This outlook has helped inspire antinuclear activists to sit in at power plant construction sites, forest activists to sustain long-term tree-sits, and environmental justice activists to stand firm in defense of their communities. People around the world are acting in solidarity with indigenous peoples fighting resource extraction on their lands. With climate chaos looming on the horizon, such a transformation is no longer optional. Our very survival now depends on our ability to renounce the status quo and create a more humane and ecologically balanced way of life.