Thoughts on Earth Day

It’s become common on Earth Day in recent years to observe that the environmental movement has a much tougher argument to make now than in the past, and faces more entrenched and partisan opposition. TNR’s Jeffrey Ball sums up this rather pessimistic argument today:

[A]t middle age, Earth Day and the environmental movement face a fundamentally tougher foe than they did in the spring of ’70: climate change. Over the past decade and a half, environmental stalwarts have tried various tactics to fight global warming, and they’ve largely failed. Now, though they don’t say so explicitly, they’re essentially reverting to the same principle that characterized that first Earth Day: “Think globally, act locally,” which subsequently became an environmentalist mantra. The fundamental question the environmental movement faces as it nears its silver anniversary is whether, in the face of this modern nemesis, the familiar playbook will succeed better than it did the first time around.

Thus, says Ball, the focus on environmental groups on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline is an effort to recapture the “think globally, act locally” spirit of the past with a tangible, oil-industry target tangentially related to the big problem that’s so hard for people to wrap their minds around or secure action to address.

Best I can tell, though, there are plenty of environmentalists convinced that Keystone XL is in itself an environmental threat, not just a symbol, and a lot more environmentalists who downplay “symboilic” issues and even the ritual of Earth Day itself and focus on the hard, daily struggle against carbon emissions.

But thanks to polarization, and the broadening of the civic and political space in which climate change denialism is not only acceptable but fashionable, there is a growing sense on this Earth Day that environmentalists have lost their once-broad megaphone.

On the first Earth Day my conservative public high school in Cobb County, Georgia, devoted an entire school day to discussion of environmental issues. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. Early conservative attacks on environmentalism were decidedly counter-cultural. I distinctly recall National Review commenting in 1970: “So celebrate Earth Day, formerly Lenin’s Birthday. Pick up a beer can. Throw it at a pollutocrat.” Now conservatives are more likely to ignore Earth Day or celebrate what they consider to be the demise of environmentalism as a mass, quasi-universal movement.

But the climate change problem is not going away no matter how strongly or weakly it polls, or how faithful or inconstant the one national political party still more or less interested in environmental issues happens to be on any one issue at any one time. So on this as on other Earth Days, it’s a good time to put one’s shoulder to the rock and roll it back up the hill, knowing it may roll back down on any given Election Day or whenever some competing priority seizes the political high ground.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.