Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

So today is Earth Day. Around the nation, people are recycling and picking up trash.

While that's fine and all, I am disappointed at what Earth Day's become 40 years after it began. In 1970, environmentalism seemed poised to be the next focus of American radicalism. A New York Times article projected that the environment would soon overtake Vietnam as the most important issue leading to protest in the nation.

Didn't happen that way. Why not? I think there are several possible reasons. First was that the environmental movement always relied on federal legislation over mass action as the path to change. That proved amazingly successful during the Johnson and Nixon years, but disastrous under Reagan and the Bushes. Trapped into a legislative strategy, the movement had great difficulty moving to mass action when necessary.

Second, those significant successes in the 60s and 70s took radical energy out of environmentalism. The legislative strategy worked so well, making real and visible changes in people's lives, that for many it didn't seem necessary to take to the streets in support of radical environmentalism. On top of this, by the early 70s, Americans were tiring of radicalism; after Vietnam and the turmoil of 1968, there wasn't a lot of energy left to move on to new foci of radicalism.

Third, corporations quickly realized that they could make good with communities by sponsoring Earth Day activities. This became an early version of the greenwashing we see so frequently today. By giving money, corporations both created good public relations for themselves and ensured the activities would remain nice and polite.

Fourth, and this might be the most important, there were a lot of radical environmentalists in the 1970s of course. But they often rejected mainstream society and went to live in communes, isolated farms, or other remote locations. The separatism of environmentalits and the turn of the movement away from people and toward wilderness made mass-movement radicalism very difficult to engender. How do you get 20,000 people together to fight for clean environments when they are all living on communes in rural Oregon or Tennessee?

All of this helped to suck the potential of Earth Day to start long-term change in America. Particularly as those formerly radical environmentalists aged, left their communes, and went into law or business or whatever, environmentalism became a strongly consumerist movement. Environmentalism became about buying organic vegetables or the right kind of light bulbs or owning a Prius. Meanwhile, Earth Day celebrations became little more than tame gatherings of people picking up trash, showing off the latest organic farm goods, and congratulating each other on how green they were.

Mainstream environmentalism drifted far away from creating radical change in our relationship to nature. I remember coming to realize the corruption of Earth Day when I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1990s. I went to the Earth Day celebration--which was held in a park on the far western edge of town, 10-15 miles from the center of town where I lived. No one could go there without driving. It wasn't designed where people gather to make political change, i.e. downtown. It was in a suburban park, filled with SUVs festooned with meaningless liberal slogans.

Things have changed slightly for the better since then. The spectre of climate change combined with a new generation of moderate activists to rejuvenate the environmental movement to some extent. But there's still little radicalism of note. Maybe that's OK. Young people certainly seem solution-oriented, which has its advantages, even if it doesn't really question the root causes of environmental catastrophe.

At the very least, it would be nice if environmentalists could actually influence the president. While Obama talked a big game on environmental issues during the campaign, he hasn't actually done much of anything except open up the Atlantic Coast to oil exploration and support nuclear energy. His choice of Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has been mediocre to say the least. His ability to force Republicans to talk seriously about climate change is obviously nonexistent.

Maybe a good start would be to use the Supreme Court nomination to lift another William O. Douglas to the Court. Douglas was the greatest judicial environmentalist in history, an early supporter of Rachel Carson's research, and a reliable liberal. J.P. Green at The Democratic Strategist has a nice piece on Douglas:

Justice Douglas's commitment to the environment would be impossible to match for any nominee. As the longest-serving justice in the history of the High Court, Justice Douglas ruled in favor of the environment at every opportunity. Nominated by FDR, he was also the youngest justice ever to be sworn in -- at the age of forty. He reportedly hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. In his dissenting opinion in the landmark environmental law case, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), he argued that "inanimate objects," including trees have legal standing in lawsuits. An excerpt:
Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole — a creature of ecclesiastical law — is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases.... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.
It was the leadership of Justice Douglas that saved the Buffalo River in Arkansas and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. He also swayed the High Court to preserve the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky, which is Holy Ground to folks from that part of the country. A trail in the Gorge is named in his honor, as is The William O. Douglas Wilderness, adjoining Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, along with Douglas Falls in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. There is a lot more that can be said about the visionary leadership of Douglas on behalf of the environment, but environmentalists would be happy with a justice with half his phenomenal commitment to mother earth.

No one is talking about environmental regulations as central to this nomination, but I think it should be. A reliable liberal with a strong environmental record should not be hard to find. As Obama has stated, he knows Republicans are going to oppose whoever he nominates, so he's going to nominate whoever he wants. Hopefully, he'll be inspired to actually follow through on his words. More likely, he'll pick a moderate. And Earth Day will continue on its generally pointless course.