And no, it’s not just because of COVID-19
Slightly more popular than Arbor Day, in recent years Earth Day has struggled for air. This despite having the bubbling cauldron of charisma, Al Gore, as its self-anointed champion. Earth Day comes as a kind of afterthought for many Americans – including this fair blog – despite its prominence in the early era of the environmental movement. Environmental Historian, Josh Howe, writes in Scientific American:
“From the perspective of 2020, it is easy to forget just how effective a driver of social change the American environmental movement once was. Though Earth Day organizers have made much-needed efforts to diversify and internationalize the event in recent years, the original Earth Day in 1970 was a largely white middle-class affair focused on educational events that highlighted problems of pollution and waste. And it was hugely popular. The event had the support of local, state and federal officials (Pat and Dick Nixon planted a tree), and it drew more than 20 million participants, nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time. Public opinion polls saw political concern about environmental issues increase by orders of magnitude between 1969 and 1971, changing the landscape of environmental politics and paving the way for some of the most aggressive environmental policies of the 20th century.”
In addition to being a middle class affair, the early Earth Days were part of a political landscape that saw the environment as a bipartisan issue. Environmental problems were obvious. Elites on both sides trusted science albeit for different reasons. Cold warriors liked nukes and hippies disliked pollution – both of these things privileged scientific information in policymaking. (Though, these versions of scientific authority created long-standing challenges in addressing a number of issues that attempted to regulate American capitalism. Read Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt).
Immediacy in both harm and potential solution invigorated the early Earth Days in ways that we can see playing out with COVID-19. At the same time, though, distrust in science makes COVID-19 – a bona fide pandemic which will kill hundreds of thousands of Americans – controversial for some of America’s finest wackos (better known as Trump’s Base).
Howe’s article points out that values in the creation of Earth Day era policies – such as the National Environmental Policy Act – were quite different than today. Values that will need to return to prevent COVID-20.
“More than any other piece of legislation, NEPA codified the precautionary approach that drove the environmentalism of the 1970s in the United States. The precautionary principle, simply put, assumes that amidst uncertain information, a new substance or practice is presumed harmful to the environment until its proponents can demonstrate that it is not.”
COVID-19 has (appropriately) dominated the entire news agenda for weeks in a way we haven’t seen since pre-Trump CNN’s yearlong vigil for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Quaint Earth Day didn’t stand a chance during yesterday’s news cycle. However, there are clear connections between environmental issues and the current health crisis, connections that Howe uses to describe variations in responses between COVID-19 and climate change. The 1980s brought out the best in all of us, ditching the precautionary principle for cost-benefit analysis. Precaution isn’t exactly a strong suit of an administration headed by chief executive who specializes in bankruptcy. But precaution is back on the agenda for public health and that might be good news for the environment.
The remainder of the discourse around COVID-19 is not unlike that of environmental issues, or really any issues that depend upon scientific information for their frame. Indeed, the President’s COVID-19 rhetoric has an eerily similar pattern to climate change opponents:
- It doesn’t exist.
- It’s a hoax.
- It’s a Chinese hoax.
- China is lying (okay, there is some validity to that one).
- It’s not that bad.
- Only certain people will be affected by it – but, look, here’s a bunch of them who say it isn’t a big deal.
- We don’t know how big a problem it is.
- It is a big problem, but it is China’s fault. And immigrants.
- The policy response from blue states is all wrong.
The difference between climate change and COVID-19 is that, for now, people are listening. This is probably at least in part because the global crisis is unfolding over days rather than decades. Seeing the same arguments unfold in compressed time is quite the experience for those of us who follow climate change. Sort of like listening to a podcast that is covering material that you already know on 2x.
It’s worth remembering the role of leadership in Earth Day. We are seeing varying displays of leadership play out during COVID Days. It is true that Earth Day was part of a great grassroots movement to address environmental harms through the use of mass and elite pressure. It is also true that the President at the time was a corrupt son-of-a-bitch (familiar) who decided to take control of the issue by leaning into a number of environmental programs (foreign). This served to burnish his political image, but also helped him to water down some of these programs. Earth Day could have gone another way if Nixon decided to throw a tantrum. Instead of planting, one could imagine a modern Dick and Pat cutting down a tree for Earth Day as part of a “sustainable” logging operation. Lord knows that’s what the current administration would do.
Refreshingly, Democrats have avoided the kind of internecine conflict (for now) that has become part of the climate discussion in states and at the federal level. As with the early era of the environmental movement and the legitimation of Earth Day, leadership is key. Just as a leader can magnify doubt so could a leader magnify hope. Joe Biden is not exactly a hopeful candidate – though he would quickly tell you he was the VP in the Hope and Change administration.
He’s a wet blanket, for sure. But a wet blanket might be good enough to smother a dumpster fire.
Al Gore settled literally years of speculation when he endorsed Joe Biden yesterday. He chose the 50th anniversary of Earth Day to do it – Biden would have been 27 years old at the time of the Earth Day I. Even the power of a 10th level Vice President struggles to position the environment at the top of the agenda.
Maybe Earth Day should follow Arbor Day and get a better theme song.