Reclaiming Earth Day: With Climate Chaos on the Horizon, the Environmental Movement Needs Traction

Published on
by
The Indypendent (New York)

Reclaiming Earth Day: With Climate Chaos on the Horizon, the Environmental Movement Needs Traction

by
Brian Tokar

As we celebrate, or contemplate Earth Day, we should remember the '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.'(Image: Gino Barzizza)

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.

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