Earth Day 2012: Environmental Movement at a Crossroads

This Sunday marks the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day. I was privileged to be legislative director for Senator Gaylord Nelson, who had the vision in 1970 for Earth Day’s “national teach-in on the environment,” and who helped make that vision a reality. Over the past four decades, I have witnessed and cheered the growth and development of the modern environmental movement. Yet, even as the achievements of the movement are honored, we should also be honest: viewed with any serious attention to long and deep trends, the environment is in serious and ever-growing danger.

This is in no way to minimize the successes of the movement. There have been significant gains in connection with air quality, the incidence of lead, and water pollution, to name three issues that were the subjects of an explosion of public concern around the time of the original Earth Day. Between 1970 and 2010, concentrations of six principal air pollutants declined by almost 71 percent; and in just the first 20 years of the Clean Air Act, an estimated 200,000 premature deaths and 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis were prevented. The percentage of children with elevated blood-lead levels dropped from 88 percent in the 1970s to just 4.4 percent in the mid-'90s. Similarly, lead air pollution decreased 98 percent by 2000. Prior to 1972, industrial waste and sewage had made approximately two-thirds of waterways unsafe for recreation and fishing use. Three decades later, in 2004, 53 percent of assessed river miles and 70 percent of bay and estuarine square miles were safe for recreation and fishing. 

It is important, however, to distinguish these significant but relatively isolated “legacy” achievements of policies enacted in earlier, more progressive times from the more recent, worsening trends of environmental degradation in many other areas. The examples are numerous.

While the rate at which natural wetlands are being destroyed has slowed, the United States lost more than 500,000 additional acres of such vital areas between 1998 and 2004 alone. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concluded that “water quality improvement reached a plateau about a decade ago,” and that there had been a recent “upward trend for beach closings, red tides, dead zones, droughts, flooding, coral reef damage, nutrient pollution, and sewage pollution.” Given current trends, the EPA has “projected that sewage pollution will be as high in 2025 as it was in 1968, that is, before the passage of the Clean Water Act.” 


Fish consumption warning advisories increased from 899 nationwide in 1993 to 4,598 in 2010. Toxic chemicals, species loss, landfill waste, deteriorating freshwater supplies—the list seems endless. Around 154 million Americans, about half of the nation, currently live in areas that suffer from ambient ozone and/or particulate levels that are often too dangerous to breathe, resulting in 50,000 or more premature deaths per year.

These dynamics—to say nothing of the complete failure to address climate change—are disheartening. They demonstrate that the capacity of the environmental movement to protect the environment through regulations and traditional political strategies is diminishing with each passing year. The problem is not a lack of effort or interest. The problem, first, is that attempts to significantly reverse ongoing social, economic and environmental decay have regularly been stymied by corporate opposition and our stalemated national political system.

At a more fundamental level, the economic system is committed to and intertwined with endless growth—growth in the use of resources (many of them non-renewable); growth in the use of low-cost labor; growth in the number of products produced; growth of shareholder profits; and, inevitably, growth in pollution and carbon emissions.

Put another way, the challenge is systemic, not simply political in the usual sense of the term. Ultimately, unless we begin to change the system, the politics and economics that produce the long trends of decay will continue. Nor is the problem abstract: Local communities feel the full effects of pollution and climate change, as well as the massive social and environmental costs of corporate outsourcing of jobs. Unless a more fundamental economic strategy can be developed, the pain—and decay—will continue.

The environmental movement, and indeed the progressive movement as a whole, is at a critical crossroads. Defending past accomplishments and continuing to strive for stronger environmental laws and regulations are obviously important and necessary. However, the challenge now is greater. As James Gustave Speth, a leading environmentalist and former adviser to two presidents puts it: “For the most part, we have worked within this current system of political economy, but working within the system will not succeed in the end when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”


What Speth and countless others have come to realize is that the world simply cannot wait for the increasingly remote possibility that somehow “business as usual” will generate a politics that can alter the deteriorating trends. A new economic system of environmental stewardship must be built from the ground up, community by community, state by state, region by region in the coming period. 


Just such a “new economy” movement is, in fact, quietly building up momentum just beneath the surface of media attention—paradoxically, in large part because the failure of national and international strategies produces more and more economic and ecological devastation. Citizens in all parts of the country have been taking the lead in constructing new economic models and institutions that not only promote democratized economic opportunity, but also, ecological sustainability. 


Austin, Texas, for instance, has embarked on an ambitious project to make the city carbon neutral by 2020, with the large, local, publicly owned utility taking a lead role. In Edmonds, Washington, community residents, the city government, and a Seattle-based company have come together to form Edmonds Community Solar Cooperative—the first citizen-owned solar cooperative in the state, and an innovative model of government, business and resident collaboration in support of environmental and economic goals. “B Corporations” designed to permit and facilitate investment in socially and environmentally important practices have been authorized by legislatures in Maryland and several other states.  


On a larger scale, such efforts as the groundbreaking network of linked worker cooperatives in Cleveland are designed not only to build economic wealth and community ownership in low-income neighborhoods, but also to be ecologically sustainable. The industrial-scale, worker-owned laundry cooperative operates out of a LEED Gold-certified building and uses and heats one fourth as much water per pound of laundry as its traditional counterpart. The large-scale solar and greenhouse cooperatives are similarly environmentally oriented as a matter of principle. 


These are only a few of literally thousands of new efforts developing beneath the surface of public attention. There is certainly every reason to continue the fight for stronger regulations and policies to address specific problems (like hydraulic fracturing and the Keystone XL pipeline). But unless we face up to the hard truth that our traditional regulatory strategies are no longer working, we won’t be celebrating the hopes of Earth Day much longer. The task going forward cannot simply be to reform and regulate the system: we must roll up our sleeves for the long struggle to change it.

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