Politics for the Planet
Remembering the first Earth Day—again.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
I have been writing about the environment for exactly 20 years. I can still remember the first time I wrote a piece to coincide with Earth Day, in April, 1986, probably because it had only been a month since I had entered the field of journalism, and everything about that time was new and memorable. My idea then, as an ambitious young journalist, was to look back over the years since the first Earth Day and track the positive and negative changes that had occurred. As I recall, the piece I wrote was mostly angry and probably depressing.
I could easily write the same piece today. Since the first Earth Day in 1972, the health of the planet has in fact deteriorated dramatically. There’s a part of me that would like to present frightening evidence here to convince anybody who doesn’t already believe it that we need to change the way we do things.
But I will not do that, because I feel inspired by something I heard while listening to KAZU a few days ago. The man speaking was an environmental activist on one of the NPR talk shows (I did not catch his name). Addressing fellow environmentalists, he said something along the lines of this: “If we want to inspire people to action, we need to be able to give our version of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, instead of the ‘I Have a Nightmare’ speech that they’ve already heard.”
I am tired of being preached at by environmentalists, even if I can be a preachy environmentalist myself.
I believe that man was right—I am tired of being preached at by environmentalists, even if I can be a preachy environmentalist myself. So his challenge got me to thinking: What is the environmentalist’s dream? Is it that everybody is buying local organic produce at the farmers market? All of America driving hybrid cars? Bike-to-work-week all year long? A solar panel on every rooftop?
If everyone everywhere decided to tailor their every daily action to comport with principles of environmental stewardship, would that be The Dream come true?
No…that can’t be it. That won’t work as a call to action—and not because it’s too much to ask, but because it isn’t enough.
Twenty years ago, I was already a committed recycler. Back then recycling required commitment. It required a lot of separating. One had to separate office paper from newsprint and bottles from cans. There were two or three kinds of plastic to negotiate. And then you had to schlep everything to the recycling center. After waiting around for the guy to weigh your trash, you could collect $1.37—which was nice, as it paid for the gas you burned driving across town.
All of us recyclers believed the hassle was worth it, because we were saving the world. Recycling meant we were taking personal, individual responsibility for the health of the planet. That was a new idea, and we believed it was important work. A bumper sticker popular at that time read: “Recycle or Die.”
Like many committed environmentalists, then and now, I was pretty good at the “I Have a Nightmare” speech. So I wrote an editorial back then, maybe coinciding with another Earth Day, that ran under the headline “Recycle and Die Anyway.” My point was that taking personal, individual responsibility was not enough—that the world could not be saved through individual acts. I believed then, as I still do, that our only hope resided in collective, political action.
Nowadays, recycling is easy. Collective action produced city dumps that hire people to separate our trash. (Hooray!) And yet there are rafts of plastic the size of islands floating in the world’s oceans. And the ice caps are melting.
Oh well…there it is. I have a nightmare. In my nightmare, I have been recycling for more than half my life, and I have been shopping organic since the days when that meant going to the co-op, and I have been writing about environmental issues for 20 years, and still there is so much to be done.
But I do have a dream, and in that dream the restaurants serve organic salads and sustainable seafood, and there are whole chains of grocery stores devoted to organic food, and hybrids are hip, and…it’s a beginning. Twenty years, and it’s still just a beginning.
And I have a dream that environmentalists have forged coalitions with workers and poor people and even business owners and religious leaders, and together we are forging a political consensus to create a sustainable global economy…and that’s still just a dream.