On the Insufficiency of the Individual and the Power of the Parade
This year marks the 51st Earth Day, and at a time when environmental protections in general and climate change in particular are polarized, partisan issues, it’s worth reflecting on the surprising political consensus that birthed the holiday.
Earth Day began as part of the burgeoning environmental movement of the late 1960s, as major oil spills, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, flaming rivers, and freeway sprawl brought home the impacts of pollution to an increasing number of Americans. While industries that relied on being able to extract and pollute were opposed to environmental legislation, for the rest of the country environmentalism was a consensus issue: by 1970, 70% of Americans believed air and water pollution were serious problems in their communities. Sensing the public mood, politicians raced to propose environmental legislation ahead of their opponents. While much of the legislative push initially came from Democrats, Republicans quickly got on board: in a 1970 speech to Congress that might sound quite foreign to today’s Republicans, Richard Nixon called for “fundamentally new philosophies of land, air, and water use, for stricter regulation, for expanded government action, for greater citizen involvement, and for new programs to ensure that government, industry, and individuals all are called on to do their share of the job and pay their share of the cost.”
Nixon signed several major environmental bills into law during his tenure, and in July of 1970 created the Environmental Protection Agency, both as a way of appeasing environmentally-concerned voters and as a way of shrinking government by consolidating the functions of some 44 scattered government offices into a single agency. Nixon was never enthused about his environmental agenda, but action on the environment was popular, and he found it politically expedient. Other Republicans made similar environmental overtures. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Oregon’s Republican governor Tom McCall told a student journalist, “It is amazing what young people are doing. There’s no generation gap about pollution here. It’s your future, and we want to give you a heritage that’s worth inheritance.”
At a time when the United States was highly divided by issues of racism and civil rights and by the Vietnam War, environmentalism was a consensus issue, and both major political parties embraced it. So what changed? Why is environmentalism so polarizing today? Why is climate change – a crisis every bit as existential as the nuclear arms race of a century ago, for our generation and many to come – so partisan?
That’s a bigger question than I can hope to answer in a blog post, but I do have some thoughts. Most obviously, extractive and polluting industries stood to lose a lot from environmental legislation, so they began to lobby hard against it. Over the last decades, industry has spent billions in political donations to candidates opposed to environmental regulation, and similar sums for public relations campaigns.
But along with these industry efforts – in some cases because of them – the environmental movement was often directed along a path of individual, rather than collective, action. While on the first Earth Day, environmental activists in Chicago rallied a coalition to oppose the local utility’s massively polluting power plants, later Earth Days were more focused on what the individual could do on their own: Turn off lights! Recycle! Use less plastic! Switch to LEDs!
None of these are bad things. They are, in fact, good things. But they are inadequate things. Tens of thousands of Americans have purchased the Toyota Prius and other hybrid or all-electric vehicles over the years, saving huge amounts of energy. At the same time, however, many more people bought inefficient SUVs and trucks, more than offsetting any gains. More importantly, there’s been very little public discussion about redesigning suburban sprawl or reducing the need for vehicles to begin with. Rather than addressing the fundamental problem – cities that can only be effectively navigated by car – individuals are asked to make changes on their own and be “responsible consumers.” While individuals make these often-costly decisions to make more environmentally-friendly purchases, the overall trajectory of the problems doesn’t improve. It can be exhausting. It can be alienating, too: If I’m making ecologically-informed choices, why aren’t they? And for those who won’t make ecologically-informed lifestyle choices, or for those who can’t because of the expense, the gospel of individualized, consumer environmentalism can easily smack of self-righteousness. When environmentalism becomes green consumerism, it trades the possibility of systemic change for an individual’s identity marker.
Of course, it’s not lost on me that all of us at LifeSource owe our paycheck to green consumerism: if it weren’t for all of you buying organic produce, bulk goods, shade-grown coffee, and bamboo toilet paper, we wouldn’t have a job. It’s not that these things aren’t important – they are – it’s just that they aren’t adequate to the task at hand. We think it’s critical to be able to provide children with strawberries that haven’t been sprayed with chlorpyrifos – and we love that we can! – but we know that there are plenty of other stores where parents can and do buy fruit that’s been sprayed with pesticides and fumigants, and that migrant farmworkers have been forced to handle the toxic stuff for an inadequate wage. We’re proud to offer an alternative, but the underlying problems still persist.
Twenty years ago, LifeSource was, quite literally, the only store in town where you could buy organics. Now, as organics and other natural food have gained in popularity, you can find at least some organics at just about any grocery in the area. While we could lament that as increased competition, we don’t: we think it’s a cause for celebration that organic food has become more accessible to a broader spectrum of people. And we think it’s reason for hope, as we could never have imagined the growth in the natural foods industry when we opened our doors in 1994. It’s obvious that there’s a broad consensus of people who hunger for clean, healthy food. There’s also a broad consensus among farmworkers and food-processing workers that they need safer working conditions and better wages. And while we’re proud to offer the very best food and work with fair trade companies and cooperatives that treat their workers right, we recognize that offering you these alternatives is important, but not enough. It’s why we think it’s critical to support and work with community organizations and food justice efforts whenever it’s possible.
The problem, as an example, isn’t that you’re not biking across town to get your groceries at LifeSource, but that our communities are arranged in such a way that discourage walking and biking. So this Earth Day, maybe take a little breather from stressing about how to sort your recycling, how to start worm composting, or how you’re going to afford solar panels… Not because these things aren’t important, but because we need to gear up for something even more crucial: working together with friends and neighbors to make collective changes in our communities and beyond.
While some collective organizing must be serious in nature, not all of it need be. Olympia, Washington, hosts the Procession of the Species, an annual observance of Earth Day, featuring parades of dancers, musicians, and puppeteers, all elaborately costumed to resemble a diverse array of animal and plant species. It’s a joyous celebration of the abundance and diversity of our world, an acknowledgment of our relatedness to all beings. While a scattering of individuals in animal costume would be an eyebrow-raising oddity, a parade of many is inspiring and festive (and a draw for thousands of tourists). Similarly, if we can move environmentalism away from the domain of individual choices and back to the realm of collective action, we have a chance to make the environment a consensus issue once again, something in which we can all take joy and pride.