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At 35, an Earth Day Surprise

Environmentalism’s new leading edge is in the red states

April 20, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Earth Day 2005 celebrates a distinguished, remarkably successful movement that today is taking up new kinds of important work, often in unexpected places.

I was a 14-year-old eighth grader in White Plains, N.Y. on April 22, 1970, the very first Earth Day. It was such a national happening that Highlands Junior High School organized work parties for the occasion. My friends and I decided to paint the dingy New York Central train station downtown; we laid on so much white enamel that the brick walls looked as though they’d been bleached. The New York Times was impressed. They reported on it in the next day’s paper. 

That old station, and the afternoon spent making gray walls look new, is a useful metaphor as a movement and its special day enter a decidedly different middle age. The station is gone, replaced by a new one a little bit north. Similarly, many of the ecological and public health urgencies that galvanized swarms of Americans to act that day are, if not totally gone, certainly in far better shape.           

That was the point of Earth Day, of course: To improve how we live. It worked. We now swim in waters that were once black. We no longer can see the air we breathe in New York or Dallas. There are many more bald eagles and gray wolves. The gravest danger from food is not the pesticides within, but how much we eat. Thousands of new businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs have sprouted on toxic waste sites that were cleaned up.

Yet these triumphs, which rank among the keenest successes of any American social movement, have not produced the clamor of gratitude and celebration one might expect on Earth Day’s 35th anniversary. There is instead a bit of melancholy and remorse, a sense of estrangement, and a palpable ache within the environmental movement. And from outside, a punishing, malignant invective from critics.

Both camps seem stuck in perceptions of environmentalism that do not accurately reflect the authentic strength of the movement from one coast to the other. The leaders of the Sierra Club and other prominent national environmental groups, stung by how their issues were ignored in the 2004 presidential race, are defending themselves from charges from within their own ranks that environmental concerns are no longer the public’s priorities.

Meanwhile, their opponents in the White House, Congress, state legislatures, industrial front offices, and right-wing radio are locked down in a menacing, misplaced loathing that endlessly repeats demonstrably false attacks that have become clichés: Environmentalists are “extremists,” “elitists,” “out of touch” and bent on “stealing private property rights” and “putting people out of work.”

Come now. The country is cleaner and greener than it was 35 years ago, and the economy is much, much larger. The most economically vibrant places in America and the world are those that recognize that prosperity lies in securing land, water, and air quality.

Environmentalism’s New Edge
The place where I live now, along the utterly magnificent forested northern coast of Lake Michigan, is a case in point. The counties surrounding Traverse City, Mich. are the fastest growing and among the most prosperous in the Midwest precisely because public laws cleared the air and water of pollutants, and protected the forests, rivers, and tallest freshwater sand dunes in the world.

Today the environmental movement’s defensiveness and the right’s carping obscure something else just as critical: The leading edges of a rich and formidable environmentalism that are emerging in thousands of surprising places. People in Colorado, Arizona, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Texas, and Utah — just to name a few — are taking startlingly progressive steps to build new transit lines, protect farmland and open space, mandate renewable energy projects, block Wal-Marts, establish new mining restrictions, bring local farm food into public schools, construct energy-efficient green buildings, and design systems to conserve water. They are buying fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, purchasing homes in walkable communities, instituting growth boundaries to curb sprawl, building alliances between ranchers and conservationists, replacing highways with better and less expensive alternatives, and taking thousands of other actions that — as the original Earth Day organizers said— “look beyond tomorrow.”

Perhaps environmental leaders do not entirely recognize these achievements because those pursuing them do not fit the demographics that have long supported their organizations. The right wing, meanwhile, is absolutely clueless. They cannot see that much of the current environmental progress now occurs in fast growing, conservative states and communities. Millions of Americans who would not be caught dead talking to tree huggers are nevertheless reinventing the materials of the old green principles into new forms of environmental activism.

In fact, more Americans than ever embrace the central idea that motivated Muir and Leopold, Brower, Udall, and Carson: The natural world offers untold value to the human realm. But they express it in ways more fitting for these times.

Americans get it. They understand that we spent most of a generation enacting laws clearly meant to point fingers and halt bad behavior. They want those laws updated as necessary and strictly enforced. But the new activism takes the next logical step: applying science and economics to gain a clearer view of the nature and magnitude of environmental problems, enacting new standards that encourage business, and investing public dollars in solutions, particularly when the benefits are close to home.

Legions of Examples
Last November, for example, voters in red state Colorado approved a requirement that the state’s large electric companies generate 10 percent of their power by 2015 from clean and renewable resources, up from 2 percent today. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that the measure, Amendment 37, would save consumers $236 million in energy costs, produce 2,000 new jobs in construction and manufacturing, prompt $709 million in capital investment, generate more than $100 million in new property tax revenues, and make Colorado more economically competitive.

Moreover, voters in the Denver region, where four of the seven counties are solidly red, overwhelmingly approved a $4.7 billion sales tax increase to construct the largest regional public transit system built in America in 20 years.

So, while the national environmental community worried after the November election about a provocative essay by young environmentalists predicting the “death of environmentalism,” activists across red Colorado saw something profoundly different: The emergence of a powerful, green grassroots movement.

There are legions of other examples. According to the Trust For Public Land, a national land conservancy based in San Francisco, 111 communities in 25 states passed $11 billion in conservation ballot measures last November, including $2.4 billion to conserve land for parks and open space. Since 1998, the group said, Americans approved 935 — or 77 percent — of 1,215 conservation ballot measures.

Communities are not just spending money to preserve open land and environmentally sensitive areas; they are approving regulations that accomplish the same thing. Voters approved growth boundaries to limit where new development occurs or approved limits that dramatically slow its pace. For instance, 80 percent of Kingsburg, Calif., voters approved capping the number of building permits at 115 per year, according to California Planning and Development Report. Pleasanton, Calif. voters gave themselves the authority to approve or disapprove new development on 318 acres of city-owned land. 

And 22 of 28 ballot measures that mean to reduce traffic congestion and finance public transit improvements passed in November, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a transit advocacy and research group in Washington, D.C. Austin, Tex. approved spending almost $100 million for a new commuter rail line. Almost 60 percent of Maricopa County, Ariz. voters approved renewing a half-cent transportation sales tax through 2025 that will raise $8.5 billion for the county's $15.8 billion road and transit improvement plan.

The plan includes $2.3 billion for expanding the city’s new 20-mile light rail system already under construction in Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, and Glendale. The national popularity of such new lines — voters authorized more than $40 billion in new local transit spending last year — matches what happened last summer in Michigan, where 13 of 14 ballot measures to improve public transit won approval.

A Distinguished, Evolving Movement
As a writer who specialized in environmental journalism, and now as a professional advocate, I understand why my colleagues working at the national level do not fully see environmentalism’s new leading edge. They have focused their attention for four years on the White House and officials like Oklahoma’s reactionary Senator James Imhofe, the Republican Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The Republican leadership, responding to their constituents in the logging, mining, energy, and development industries, are working hard to gut, chop, slice, and dice existing environmental law.

The right’s attack, though, makes no political sense and could portend electoral problems for the G.O.P. After all, many of the same voters who marched extremely conservative, anti-regulatory, anti-environmental Republicans into state houses, Congress, and the White House to cut taxes and reduce government are also digging into their own pockets to protect the field next door, pay for the new transit line, pass renewable energy legislation, and more. Yet day in and day out, Senator Imhofe, Rush Limbaugh, and other stalwarts of the radical right attack these people as extremists out of touch with what red America really wants.

But the plain truth, given the results of state and regional voting patterns, is that safe water, clean air, and open spaces that build economic opportunity are precisely what red America wants.

At some point, red-state America will recognize en masse that the hard-right Republicans they elect to Congress and their legislatures are hurting, not helping them. In fact, it is already happening: Last year, after Colorado Republican lawmakers strongly opposed the renewable energy initiative and new transit in Denver, voters threw them out. For the first time in years, Democrats now control both houses of the Colorado legislature.

Earth Day feels different this year because new urgencies have replaced the old ones and are gaining higher public priority. Severe drought, likely caused by global warming, is making life harder on the Colorado Plateau. Traffic congestion and rising air pollution are underlining the absence of sound planning and quality public transportation. Old, overflowing sewage treatment plants are worsening water pollution. Big box superstores are paving rural America and taking out small town and older-suburb businesses.

Because these problems are closer to our front doors, they more directly determine how American communities develop. They require whites and blacks, farmers and conservationists, rural folks and urban dwellers, the wealthy and the working class to work together. The solutions do not generally require new laws — those were put into place after the first Earth Day.

Rather they call for investing tax dollars in new equipment, science, preservation, enforcement, training, public education, and planning. Earth Day 2005, just as its founders suggested 35 years ago, marks the evolution of a distinguished movement that continues to recruit millions of Americans to take up important work that “seeks a future worth living.”

Keith Schneider, a former national correspondent with The New York Times, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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