As I strolled down Broadway today, one of Manhattan’s busiest avenues, two bright-eyed employees stood outside an outdoor sports shop, offering handfuls of colorful markers, waving customers in, exclaiming, “Happy Earth Day! Do you want to come draw on our windows to honor it?”
While this may at first seem like an ineffectual way to honor April 22, in his recent article published in The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann calls for similarly personal, on-the-ground efforts to revive the environmental movement.
In 1969, Wisconsin Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson called for a “national teach-in” regarding environmental issues of his time. Just eight months after his speech, the Environmental Protection Agency was born and, in less than five years, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were all passed.
What began over 40 years ago and sparked a revolution in environmental efforts, Lemann says, has seemed to come to a grinding halt lately, even though environmental groups are larger and more powerful than they’ve ever been before. Which begs the question: Why?
Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, believes the original Earth Day was more participatory, educational and locally controlled. Even on Earth Day in 1990, a much better planned anniversary where more than a million people honored the event in Central Park, Rome says it was already, “more top-down and more directive.” Rather than participants working out their own vision for how to make a change, the message had already been simplified in order to draw people into the environmentalist community.
Lemann goes on to note that in 1970, when the major concerns were water, air and food contamination, suburban moms and college students who largely made up environmental groups could rally behind issues that hit closer to home. Nowadays, though local contamination is still problematic, the environmental movement is necessarily refocusing its efforts on global warming, a more abstract concept, bigger problem that's outgrown local community activism. That means that many participants feel they can't get close enough to make a difference.
As the issues have grown, so too has the need for environmental lobbies to reach negotiations with large corporations and politicians. What began as a rebellious “Sue the bastards” attitude has been forced to adapt to an atmosphere where carbon emissions are traded as commodities, and swollen, 1,500-page environmental bills lie dormant on the Congress floor.
Cornell historian Aaron Sachs recently wrote, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, a book in which he argues that rather than protecting nature from (a seemingly separate) civilization, we should look to our early forbears, who were obsessed with integrating the two in such a way that everyone felt a part of the environment and, therefore, responsible for it. The result could be a democratization of the movement. Sachs writes:
My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places... haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.
As Lemann suggests, this Earth Day should be about more than just celebration. With today's technologies, we're better equipped than ever before to limit our carbon footprint and contend with global warming. But to effect positive change, we have to believe that locally we can have an impact on a huge, global issue. By looking back to the environmental movement's early successes and learning how to localize the larger issue, maybe we can rescue the movement from token Facebook “likes” and signing e-petitions. Maybe we can take back our voices and, like those sports shop workers (well, maybe not exactly like them), take the fight back to the streets.