In a period of toxic federal politics, Earth Day attracts thoughtful analysis

REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash

No doubt Donald Trump would repeal Earth Day by executive order, if only he could, and the tenor of environmental politics at the federal level is so toxic just now that it took much effort to wade into the annual flow of commentary around this year’s observance.

But I found a pleasing diversity and even some depth to share in the selections that follow.

Over at National Geographic, Brian Clark Howard produced a feature on 48 wins in 48 years — a chronological list of “the biggest milestones in environmental protection,” year-by-year, since Earth Day 1970. And these are substantial victories, especially in the early 1970s, when so many of the nation’s bedrock laws on air and water quality, environmental review, pesticide control and species protection were adopted.

The scale of change varies from year to year, of course, and declines generally over time; it’s hard to be as gratified by “the rise of walking” (2007) or the release of “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) as the Montreal Protocol to heal the ozone hole (1987) or the bald eagle’s triumphal exit from the list of endangered species (1995). Some years were winless, too, so Howard had to count multiple victories in others.

But here is a long record of substantive accomplishment despite difficult politics, and that is truly worth savoring, especially nowadays. (Last year’s big win was a sort of double negative — the Trump administration’s decision to abandon its rollback of tougher ozone standards; this year’s, so far, is the lesser long-nosed bat’s recovery from endangered status.)

* * *

Another list, prepared by Umair Irfan and Eliza Barclay over at Vox, carries the possibly irresistible  title “7 things we’ve learned about Earth since the last Earth Day.” A condensation:

  • Plastics pollution has probably been understated, new research suggests, especially in the ocean.
  • Species extinction continued, including a freshwater Georgia snail and, on Australia’s Christmas Island, two skinks, a gecko and a bat.
  • On the plus side, some species were rebounding, including some of the many threatened frogs. Also, some new species were discovered and/or formally classified; in the new-critter category is a giant sulfur-eating, muck-dwelling shipworm as thick as your forearm and twice as long. You can see a video here, but you might not want to click that link over lunch.
  • The ice in Greenland is melting faster than forecast. So is sea ice in the Arctic. So are the glaciers in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
  • Seagrass is making a comeback in Chesapeake Bay, thanks largely to big reductions in fertilizer runoff in the five states at its waters’ edge. So are striped bass.
  • A series of hurricanes and other natural disasters demonstrated our poor preparedness for such events.
  • “We’re getting closer to finding another Earth out there,” says the headline, which concerns a boom in “exoplanet discoveries” because of the Kepler Space Telescope. Some are larger than Jupiter; one may have liquid water on its surface; none, alas, is within commuting range.

* * *

The Washington Post’s WorldPost crew took an Earth Day look at what you could call the downsides of surging investment in renewable energy. Among these is intensifying pressure to locate and extract such materials as tin, tungsten and cobalt, resources the writers say will be as essential in the post-fossil-fuel era as oil is in this one.

And the methods of meeting that demand don’t seem much different from those of any extraction industry.  For example, the report cites “the rudimentary and exploitative conditions of Congolese miners who extract the minerals ….”

Though the U.S., the European Union and China have all sought to ensure only “conflict-free” minerals reach smelters and factories that make the components used in consumer products, the reality of certification on the ground, [writer Laura] Kasinof says, is chaotic and patchy, if not fraudulent. “Much evidence points to the reality that minerals coming from mines controlled by militias are still making their way into the global market,” she concludes.

In China, meanwhile, WorldPost observes:

Regular visitors to Beijing comment these days on how quickly the once familiar smog has given way to blue skies. That is largely due to the government capping the output of polluting steel factories in the greater capital region. Yet, it turns out that successful policy has only shifted production to other areas of the country that lack similar regulations, exporting pollution there….

* * *

Earth Day’s organizational genius in 1970, Denis Hayes, remains closely involved with the continuing campaign of the Earth Day Network and gave a wide-ranging interview to Mongabay. The most interesting comments, for me, concerned his optimism for future recruitment of youth and the possibility of learning a newer grassroots politics:

I love that young people are waking up again, whether around gun violence, skyrocketing tuition, or environmental issues. Big dramatic change, when it happens, is usually led by the young. America’s civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement that toppled a president, and the environmental movement that fundamentally changed the rules of the game for industry were all led by kids in the 1960s and ’70s. I’m hoping that some of the aged veterans of the 1960s will be able to find common cause with the angry young activists to today — a gray-green alliance.

Today, a “day” is simply a news cycle, forgotten the next morning. With that in mind, Earth Day 2020 will be more like a meme than a day. Hopefully, it will last for many months, with innumerable developments tied together with a common branding…. We need to build in the experiences of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo and #EndGunViolence to create a global community — on myriad different platforms — of billions of people committed to a peaceful, healthy, equitable future.

* * *

But what do people of color and youth think about Earth Day? A pair of comments, starting with Jeremy Orr of the Michigan NAACP:

To me, Earth Day has been less about promoting the public health and well-being of all individuals through conservation and environmental protection and more about protecting the pristine land owned and occupied by wealthy, white people…. The shift toward intentional inclusion of frontline communities in the environmental movement over the past few years makes this Earth Day different for me; it will be different, because when I look around the country and see oppressed populations rising up and staking their claim in this movement.

As we wrestle with various environmental issues in Michigan, we enter Earth Day with our eyes on the prize: clean air to breathe and safe water to drink. As local oil refineries, trash incinerators, and corporate and municipal utility companies continue to pollute our air with toxic emissions, the Michigan NAACP continues to challenge coal-based permits to install, permits to increase toxic emissions, and the expansion of facilities who already have unchecked violations.

And from Jamie Margolin, a Seattle 16-year-old who founded a climate-action group called Zero Hour and shared her feelings with CNN:

Today is Earth Day. Please save your phony Earth Day tweets and Facebook posts, I don’t want to see them. Put those in a bag along with your toothless “thoughts and prayers” tweets for hurricane victims and dump them in the ocean just like you permit corporations to dump their waste. Because my generation is so done with your talk….

You have the power to save your kids. You have the power to tackle the defining issue of our time head on. But you’ve chosen not to. The first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging, and you can’t even manage to do that. You’re still in the pockets of corporations digging our destruction.

 * * *

Her commentary is directed primarily at officeholders, and the last piece I’ll quote is aimed at the folks who put them there — in large part by staying home on Election Day.

Writing in HuffPost, Nathaniel Stinnett suggested that readers postpone their celebration of Earth Day 2018 until Nov. 6, and he cited some figures on participation by environment-minded Americans that were news to me:

According to Environmental Voter Project research, 69 percent of registered voters cast votes in 2016, but only 50 percent of environmentalists did. In the 2014 midterms, 44 percent of registered voters went to the polls, compared with only 21 percent of environmentalists.

Simply put, the environmental movement has a turnout problem, but this problem also presents an enormous opportunity. By some estimates, over 20 million registered voters list climate change and the environment among their top priorities. This could be a powerful constituency on Election Day, particularly in midterm elections where barely 80 million people vote.

 Nonvoters are the low-hanging fruit of the climate movement. They are already-persuaded environmentalists in a society where it’s increasingly hard to persuade anybody of anything.

So, interesting coincidence there: 20 million is also the generally accepted figure for aggregate attendance at the marches, rallies and other events on  Earth Day 1970.  And that mass turnout is what drove the sea change in federal environmental law and policy for years afterward.

Yes, I know, it’s hard to find candidates who give top priority to green issues. But nearly always one candidate is better than the others, and we need to remember also that our most concentrated progress as a nation came in the presidency of Richard Nixon, who didn’t particularly give a damn about natural places or species survival or getting industry to quit poisoning air and water.

The man was a canny politician, though, and he could count likely voters with the best of them.

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