Earth Day

The environmental movement’s midlife crisis.

As Earth Day turns 35 Friday, the environmental movement is in the throes of a midlife identity crisis. In despair over the Republican victories in the November election and riven by internal tensions, activists are certain of neither their strategies nor their audience. What are environmentalism’s major growing pains, and how can its troops avoid committing movement suicide?

The first Earth Day in 1970 didn’t necessarily constitute the “birth of the modern environmental movement,” as Earth Day Network, an awareness-promoting group, likes to claim. When the inaugural event took place, many key laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act, had already been passed. Still, the national teach-in that took place on April 22, 1970, drew 20 million Americans into the parks and streets. The action that day helped kick off a decade in which Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and, along with the states, passed wide-ranging environmental and public-health legislation.

In the 1980s, Earth Day largely languished. Then the celebration ramped up again, at least for milestone anniversaries, with cleanups and rallies that captured the spirit of an earlier era. Earth Day 1990 events drew an estimated 100 million people around the world. Leonardo DiCaprio chaired the 2000 celebration, hosting a celebrity interview with President Clinton on global warming and enticing half a million people to the Washington Mall for a day of speeches and music.

Friday there will be the usual local cleanups, educational programs, and fund-raisers. Earth Day Network will exhort you to “go to a festival,” “install solar panels,” and “change a habit.” Bunbury, Australia, wants you to join in a leisurely beach stroll, “collecting litter which will then be sorted into 8 categories and weighed for comparison against other beach clean-ups.” Hawaii has formally proclaimed today to be Starbucks Earth Day, in honor of the giant coffee company’s eco-initiatives in the state. In other words, the annual celebration will be both widely observed and a hodgepodge of do-gooderness and sponsorships. There’s nothing wrong with the civic action and awareness-raising, but none of it is commensurate with the Earth’s problems or the environmental movement’s political challenges.

Since the November election, many environmentalists have slid into a funk. Groups like the Sierra Club and Environment 2004 spent millions on the election. But energy boondoggles and dirty air didn’t move voters. However ominously global climate change looms, the major candidates barely mentioned it. Like labor unions and the Democratic Party, since November the environmental groups have been worrying over their future.

Into this morass of self-doubt fell “The Death of Environmentalism,” a paper by media consultant Michael Shellenberger and pollster Ted Nordhaus. The Reapers, as Grist Magazine calls the authors in its lively forum on the topic, contend that environmental protection needs to be wrapped into a broader progressive agenda. The authors want to recast climate change and oil dependence as public-health threats, national security concerns, and opportunities for economic development—anything but pollution problems. As an illustration, they point to the Apollo Alliance, an initiative launched by environmental and labor leaders that calls for a multibillion-dollar federal investment in clean-energy technologies to create new jobs and promote energy independence.

The Reapers’ paper has been rightly criticized as an Oedipal attack that fails to recognize how much the environmental movement has already changed. But it taps the current zeitgeist by reflecting the anxiety that’s churning at this moment of flux. There are three transformations under way. They are for the movement’s long-term good, but together they create the current sense of crisis.

Environment Is Everywhere: Since the late 1980s, activists have expanded the meaning of “environment” well beyond wildlife and open space to encompass things like asthma and architecture. They also see the causes of environmental problems more expansively. Public education, for instance, is an environmental issue because bad schools make urban communities less safe and healthy; they also send families running to the suburbs, which contributes to sprawl. This broader conception of environment gets at what actually causes such problems, but it also makes it hard to delineate them or identify who to work with to fix them. At one moment, environmentalists join with business leaders to push for laws to slow climate change; at the next, they bash Wal-Mart in alliance with labor unions. The movement needs to find the umbrella that holds these various alliances together. Collaboratives like the Quivira Coalition, which brings together ranchers and conservationists, are starting to do that regionally. But all this is new, and the next generation of environmentalists is being pulled in many, at times conflicting, directions.

Green, Not White: Long dominated by white, middle- and upper-class professionals, the movement has slowly begun changing its makeup—and facing up to its past elitism. Social historians studying American conservation have shown that many national parks, for example, were created when the government kicked Native Americans out of their lands. In recent years, activists fighting for “environmental justice” for low-income people of color have frequently criticized mainstream green groups for shunting aside the concerns of poor communities. Some enviros want to get it, but they haven’t figured out how yet. Five years ago, the disintegration amid racial politics of an ambitious effort in the South Bronx to build a massive recycling mill—a project that would have created jobs and redeveloped polluted land—marked the gap between the theory of the new environmentalism and its messy reality.

Wising up: In the 1990s, well-organized conservatives dominated the debate over property rights and public lands. Industry-funded campaigns derailed progress on climate change. Now environmentalists are co-opting some of the right’s strategies. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, the Pew Marine Fellows Program, and SeaWeb, for example, teach scientists to make their work accessible so they can have political influence. “The Death of Environmentalism” essay showcases the movement’s newly learned tactics, sort of—it was funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which wants environmentalists to work more with other progressives to fight corporate power. For maximum effect, the Reapers released their report at an annual meeting of environmental foundations. In typical left-wing fashion, however, they swung their sickle inward.

The major changes roiling today’s environmental movement necessarily add layers of complexity to the “Save the Earth” and “Stop Pollution” messages of the first Earth Day 35 years ago. One measure of maturity is the ability to think with complexity while also acting effectively. Environmentalists must figure out how better to do that, both to emerge from their midlife crisis and to make everyone else care about the threats to the future that they see so clearly. In celebration of Earth Day Friday, let’s get cracking.