Follow me on Twitter @DrSchwark
With Earth Day activities in progress across the Unites States and the rest of world, I am wondering what relevance this day of activism still has. In an excellent blog post, my colleague Lena Davie rightly points out that it is great that people dedicate a day to the environment, but action on just one single day each year is hardly going to have much effect. This is a timely reminder. While Earth Day has become part of American national culture and as such is important on a symbolic level, it is questionable how effective it really is in light of today’s environmental challenges.
Historically, Earth Day certainly was significant. A recent study by the historian Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day, reminds us of the scale of the original 1970’s event, and tracks its impact. Rome shows how the idea of a nation-wide environmental teach-in, proclaimed by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson on September 20, 1969, inspired more than 12,000 events across the country on the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This success was largely due to the fact that Nelson was smart enough to hire dedicated staffers to organize the teach-in but also allowed his idea to go viral by not insisting on top-down control of the individual events and their messaging.
And so a diverse group became a movement, consisting of liberals looking to better the quality of life; scientists concerned with, and documenting, the level of pollution of water, ground and air; middle-class women worried about their deteriorating environment; young activists interpreting the fight for the environment as just another incarnation of the fight against the ‘system;’ and conservationists active since the era of Teddy Roosevelt. Nelson didn’t mind these groups taking ownership of his idea, and this helped the idea to go viral and ultimately to form a generation of environmentalists and environmentally conscious citizens. So nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, it seems. And indeed: Earth Day 1970 highlighted an environmental crisis in the U.S. that quickly became apparent and tangible to every citizen. Remember, this was before any efficient regulation of polluting industries was in place.
Rome’s study also shows, however, that the original Earth Day was about much more than these tangible quality-of-life issues. While pollution of rivers, lakes and the oceans, of air and soil certainly stirred up much attention, it was also largely noncontroversial that this was not a good thing. The questions posed by the movement in 1970, however, were more fundamental. I find two points are of particular interest today: What I would call the question of a sustainable way-of-life, and the question of sustainable growth.
Inquiring about a sustainable way-of-life, for instance, was largely questioning the suburbanization of the United States. A lot of attention in the late 1960s was given to the fact that with the growth of suburbia the natural land is shrinking, and often valuable habitats are destroyed. This criticism of suburbia has great implications, because suburbia is the home of hydrocarbon man and to a large degree based on the availability and affordability of cars and fuel. With suburbia come motorways, and traffic, and the national fixation on the gas price. Living in New York City it is easy to forget, but my impression from recent travels is that the Earth Day movement did not succeed in changing this, but that the development of ever more suburban sprawl continues today. And with it, the issue of sustainability.
The question of sustainable growth is even more interesting. The argument was that gross national product (GNP) is an insufficient indicator of wealth because its logic suggested that polluting and cleaning up would be more desirable than not polluting because the cleaning-up effort would also contribute to total GNP and thereby factor into the national wealth. If this ‘wealth’ includes negative environmental impacts, the argument goes, it is questionable that ‘wealth’ is so desirable after all. Sustainable growth would need a combination of quantitative and qualitative measurements which would allow marking pollution and counting it as a negative. Again, as fascinating as this argument is, I am not sure that this idea has much traction amongst economists and the informed public today. (It would certainly create a number of issues on its own.)
Coming back to the question of Earth Day’s significance today, I’m afraid it is a mixed bag. While it is great to have a dedicated, nation-wide day to think and learn about the environment and about sustainability, tangible action would be much preferred. I personally think that the only way to achieve real change would be an adequate price on pollution. Recent experiences with carbon trading in the European Union do not support much optimism.