Moving the Movement

There are many things in my life for which I’m passionate. Things that fill my every waking (and sometimes sleeping) thought with drive and fire. Above all other topics, nothing pushes me to make a difference quite like environmentalism. But there’s a major problem with this movement: It hasn’t experienced much movement at all in the past 40 years. So I am writing this: a memorandum for the new environmental movement.

Tree Huggers and Hippies (In the White House?)

First, a background on our past attempts. In the 1970’s President Nixon and all of Washington had their hands forced because of civil unrest. Americans were enraged over the incredible amounts of pollution poisoning our air and Silencing our Springs. The Nixon administration sided with the outrage and created Clean Air, Water, and Land acts, the EPA, and took other huge steps in the right environmental direction. We had the first Earth Day in 1970 with 20 million participants across the country and the aisle. Hell, President Carter even put solar panels on the roof of the White House. The country was passionate and environmentalism rose above politics as a global responsibility. This was dubbed “The Decade of the Environment.” Never again would we push aside these problems and ignore our planet.

The Tone

But under it all, under all the progress, the leaders of the movement made a major mistake. One so powerful, that it would fracture and stall their efforts even to today. Was it a personal attack? Or a controversial policy? Or a scandal amongst the leaders? No, the single biggest mistake was tonal.

That’s it, the tone was all wrong. In the early 70’s, huge amounts of educated but naïve, college graduates flocked to create new, egalitarian communes focused on living off the land. Technology, industry, and capitalism were seen as part of the environmental problem and these groups created new systems that lived in harmony with nature. They farmed, built homes, and armed with guitars and manes of long hair, they sought to bring Americans back to a period of time before pollution and suburban affluence. They were noble, but as I said, naïve. Their drive would fade and their communes would fall apart, leaving one important legacy behind:

Environmentalism = Compromise

The movement became associated with a living-with-less attitude. We needed to drive less, buy less, build less, and move back to a style of living more akin to the 19th century. In the 70’s and early 80’s this was accepted by many as the only path to protect our planet but with this ideology, a rift was starting to form. Industry, oil, and big business saw the movement as a threat to their existence. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter and widened this rift even further. He was a self-proclaimed environmentalist, but this is an excerpt from his 1979 Announcement for Presidential Candidacy:

“They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been; that the America of the coming years will be a place   where – because of our past excesses – it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true.

I don’t believe that.  And, I don’t believe you do either.  That is why I am seeking the presidency.  I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself.  Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living, the result of thrift and hard work, is somehow selfish extravagance which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity.  I don’t agree that our nation must resign itself to inevitable decline, yielding its proud position to other hands.”

The Rift

Because of the environmentalists’ collective tone, President Reagan was able to marginalize the movement. To make it seem extremist and false. He deregulated industry, stripped the EPA, and even took down President Carter’s solar panels. Why? Because the environmental movement was now the enemy of progress and worse, the American Dream.

We see that in the 30 years since, little has changed. Both American political parties seem resistant to stand up for the Earth at the risk of seeming against progress. Promoting “clean” fossil fuels and carefully crafting policies that seem to benefit the environment but in truth do virtually nothing to undo a century’s worth of damage. Where Americans were once united, we are now divided, all because of a mistake in tone 40 years ago. So we environmentalists have a problem. We all know it, but what’s the solution?

Correcting the False Narrative

If the single biggest issue with the movement is this false narrative that caring for the planet means that you are against progress, then the solution is simple: We have to show that environmentalism and progress go hand in hand. Here are three major ways that illustrate this:

1. What is the biggest driver of the economy? Innovation. America didn’t become a super power by riding on the coat tails of other nation’s inventors. We had our own. At one time, we lead every major industry because of our innovation. So why should we settle to ride along on the Middle East’s fossil fuel coat tail when we could lead in a more responsible and ultimately more profitable industry like renewable energy? That’s what I call economic recovery.

2. Environmentalism is sexy. Business leaders have much to gain by announcing to the world that they are going green. No one has ever said, “This company is switching to renewable energy? They lost my business.” The opposite is true. People will go out of their way to buy your brand. So do it for your profit margin if not for the ethics.

3. If we look at progress in terms other than economic wealth, we have a lot to gain by promoting responsible policies. Studies show that if we make cities more harmonious with the world around them, people are happier, there is a greater sense of community, crime rates decrease, population increases, tourism increases, and economic returns are greater. Make your city an environmental Mecca, and many other problems are lessened automatically.

We Can Rebuild it. We Have the Technology.

These are the facts. Environmentalism isn’t about living with less or shutting down progress, it’s about living a better, more responsible and satisfying life. And it’s even profitable! We need to change the ideology and the rhetoric and we have the tools. The easiest way we can change this culture is by talking about it. Share your ideas and feelings with friends and family. Tell your local politicians. Tell anyone who will listen! It’s easy and have the perfect platform: Social Media. The internet made the Occupy Movement a serious force and made the 99% a part of daily vernacular. Twitter helped young people organize the Arab Spring movement, promoting protest in dozens of Middle Eastern nations and even forcing five leaders from power. Let’s add an environmental revolution to that list.

We can do more and we can do better. The new environmental movement is primed and ready. So use your voice, vote with your wallet, involve the Earth in more of your everyday choices, and let’s get this movement moving!

Alex Mendenall
Environmentalist/Activist
B.A. Anthropology
Michigan State University

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