Happy Earth Day! Now what?

Environmentalism: a conundrum wrapped in a question inside a koan

It’s facile perhaps to see Earth Day as the “birthday” of modern environmentalism, but hardly ill-conceived. Both celebrations inspire a similar set of positive responses—celebration, pride—and negative—anger, regret. But as Earth Day approaches the big 4-0 (only two years away), reflection has become the overriding reflex.

That’s no surprise. Though we may question the worth of our surplus reflection, the fact remains that more people than ever, in Western society at least, have the luxury to examine their role in society, their “part” in the ecological cycle.

So, whither environmentalism?

Social movements are very much like organisms—hardly a new concept, but an excellent analogy by which to examine the current state of environmentalism—and as an organism, are predicated on a host of conditions, such as the economy and prevailing social climate.

In The Anatomy of Fascism, historian Robert O. Paxton explains how the expansion of a chosen ideology is most acute when its opposing system falters, in that particular case, how faltering liberal governments (and persistent economic turmoil) in Italy and Germany provided the perfect setting in which fascism could breed. Ideology aside, environmentalism has ascended by the same equation. Green awareness and activism exploded in the disastrous wake of unchecked industrial and technological progress.

Political and ideological movements share a second similarity with living organisms, as they operate through the action and interaction of their own internal entities—individual activists, organizations and communities—“party organs,” to borrow from Communist terminology.

Modern American environmentalism began in the early ’70s as a moderate movement, despite its countercultural roots. Nothing encapsulates this centrist attitude more succinctly than the Whole Earth Catalog, which gave equal credence to preservationist, back-to-the-land pursuits as it did to technological solutions. When state support for green initiatives dwindled during the Reagan years, the green movement expanded, with more radical wings gaining considerable support.

Today, environmentalism is comprised of a wide range of constituents, including theorists, activists, lobbyists, soccer moms, business owners and multitudes of middle-of-the-road supporters, well-meaning but perhaps less than convinced by the doom and gloom predictions they’re bombarded with every day. The range of political views within the movement runs the gamut, from the far right to the staunchly apolitical.

As history’s shown, varied approaches can be both a blessing and a curse for any movement. Diversity of thought is essential for healthy problem-solving but is, just as often, a cause of distraction and internal strife—Lenin had Trotsky, Hitler had Röhm. For every Al Gore, there are plenty of Bjørn Lomborgs. Dissent within any group is a natural phenomenon, but the “organism” still tends to progress down a path directed by the majority voice. A radical action by a minority voice will always be mediated by larger, popular initiatives.

Before moving on to some insights from actual experts, we leave you with some ecologically sound food for thought. How do we—die-hard activists and skeptical, but well-meaning, recyclers alike—pursue our green goals without allowing our varied methods to interfere with social progress of others in our movement? Are we allowing rhetoric (often, for rhetoric’s sake) to alienate would-be allies? How do we balance the short-term effectiveness of radical action with radicalism’s long-term shortcomings? How do we balance the goals of environmental responsibility with the powerful realities of human nature, such as the overwhelming human desire for comfort?

The future of the movement is as complex as the problems environmentalism works to counter. There is no one answer, nor one single person, that will permanently direct the path of environmentalism. What matters is, are we asking the right questions? And are we asking enough of them?