WaPo Earth Day Story Finds Glum Greens Struggling to Sell 'Slippery' Climate Scare

April 22nd, 2010 8:37 AM

In its puffy celebration of Earth Day on Thursday, The Washington Post found the green movement in "midlife crisis." Sadly, reported David Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin, the American people aren't grasping the immediacy of global warming, or seeing their exhalations as pollution:

The problems are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don't stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

"I don't think we've come up with a good way in the conservation movement of making it real for people," said Arturo Sandoval, who was 22 when he organized activities across the West on the first Earth Day.

In 1970, "you could say, 'Have you been down to the river lately?' And people would say, 'Oh my God, I don't even let my kids go there,' "said Sandoval, now 62 and still working on environmental causes in Albuquerque. "Global warming, to most people, is an abstract issue."

The Post duo at least seem to identify Earth Day explicitly as "liberal" activism. They don't really find anything extreme or authoritarian at the deep end of the green movement, other than hinting at it with irony: "In 1970, students at San Jose State buried a car as a protest against consumerism. In 2010, there will be Earth Day events in Washington put on by Chevrolet and Ford."

They championed how a raft of anti-pollution laws has made the nation cleaner -- and made the urgency of environmental pleas fade.

Public opinion polls show that, while Americans care about the environment, they generally rank it behind other priorities like jobs, terrorism and health care. And, on climate change -- the environmental movement's defining issue now -- polls show Americans seeming less concerned, not more, than in previous years.

"I don't think the environmental movement is deep enough, broad enough, to have the impact we want," said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, who, like many of today's most prominent environmental leaders, took part in Earth Day events in 1970. "We're a strong interest group, but we have yet to have the kind of political clout you really need in today's political world."

In fact, many also seem to have absorbed the lesson that the best thing for the environment is to buy things.

This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for "green" products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.

From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, "we've gone to the opposite extreme. We're too respectful of business," said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades -- and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.

Now that's the environmental movement too often papered over by the press -- the ones who hate consumerism, hate energy use, and when it comes down to it, the ones who just think there are too many ignorant and piggish humans befouling the planet. There's a deep streak of misanthropy lurking, going back to Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, predicting a "die-back" as the inevitable consequence of mass ignorance. Except it never happened -- just like catastrophic global warming may never happen.