Pi Attitude Zone: Ethics & Altruism

Green Power Powers Down

Green activism in America got off to a surprisingly easy start.  It debuted in 1969, when a Democratic US senator called Gaylord Nelson gave a speech in Seattle:  “The same sense of concern that … youth took in changing the nation’s priorities on the War in Vietnam, and on Civil Rights, can be shown for the problem of the Environment”, said the far-sighted senator.

His tentative initiative took off spectacularly.  Less than a year later a national teach-in dubbed Earth Day sparked around twelve thousand events around America, raising awareness of ecological issues and generating huge publicity.  Despite the lack of formal co-ordination, millions of people participated, though not all of them joined the movement.  Nonetheless, exotic new topics like organic food production and the recycling of glass bottles were suddenly on America’s agenda.

Bizarrely, back then the most active component of environment pressure groups was hunters and fishermen;  (these days they are more likely to support the National Rifle Association, and ecology be damned).  Equally bizarrely, it was during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon that the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed into law, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Republicans are no longer noted for their support of such measures.  Fast forward to 2010, and a humiliating defeat for the environmental movement.  Measures to control global warming and limit carbon emissions were not even convincing enough to be brought to a congressional vote.  No significant “planet-saving” laws have even been tabled in America since then, despite the fact that the environmental movement now enjoys widespread public support, and is enormously bigger and better-funded than when it started forty years earlier.  What happened?

Two things happened.  First was a vast corporate pushback, to protect business from “unwelcome” measures based on “unproven” science, applying lobbying and funding pressure on legislators to keep green legislation off the statute books.  Since the 1970s, conservatives in America have grown reflexively hostile to environmentalism.

Second, the environmental movement itself seems to have “gone mainstream” to the detriment of its ability to get anything done.  Support in the form of “like” clicks on websites is not, it seems, as powerful as rallies and events that people physically attend.  Planet-savers have mostly abdicated their cause to business and government, with entirely predictable results.  It is a cautionary lesson in the difference between “messaging” and organizing.  The fact that a broad cross-section of Americans feel strongly about something no longer means that their view will necessarily prevail.

Pi says: there is no longer safety in numbers.  A vociferous and active minority can get more done than a well-meaning majority, it seems.  Socio-cultural movements need to make it stick before their opponents can undermine them.

Zone: Ethics & Altruism Country: Europe Product –