19 April 2010
I just finished watching an episode of American Experience on PBS titled Earth Days. It was a history of the environmental movement from the 40s on, with particular attention to the first Earth Day (40 years ago, Thursday). Most interesting to me was the assemblage of individuals, events, and ideas that came together to make that first Earth Day happen and the myriad results that followed.
They talked about the iconic images that made people realize how tenuous our existence really is: the nuclear bomb, Silent Spring, the images of Earth from space. They talked about Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and about the Whole Earth Catalog and the back to the land movement. It was interesting to hear about the naivete of those early back to earthers, and how many of them became disillusioned and left their communes after their dreams of a peaceful, egalitarian life on the land dissolved.
One of the most beautiful parts, I thought, was to hear Russell Schweikart, an Apollo astronaut, describe his experience floating in space looking back at the Earth. He realized in that moment that he was there because humans had developed the technology to extend the Earth's life support beyond the planet, and described the sensation of looking back at our Mother - not as Gaia, but as our source and our home. It's fascinating to think about that assemblage of the technological and the human, and that sense of connection despite being so far away. These things were unthinkable just a few decades before; it's a very emotional, and captivating image.
It was also interesting to see that the environmental movement started out as a relatively non-partisan campaign. Republican Representative Pete McCloskey was one of the original supporters of the Earth Day proposal. Richard Nixon initiated the event and, though it may have been more of a political move than because he actually cared about the environment, he signed many of the first environmental regulations into law - including the creation of the EPA. Later, the issue became more partisan as the environmentalists solidified their position, creating a deadlock between the movement and those who saw them as outsiders trying to take away jobs and destroy a way of life. When Reagan became President, he was able to condemn environmentalists for trying to degrade American prosperity. As a result, the movement was set back even further.
The film ended on a somewhat low note, with the recognition that the environmental movement had made little significant progress. But it was interesting to see that it was as much the fault of the environmentalists as it was their opponents that the movement had gotten stalled. The focus on population instead of consumption; the apocalyptic, neo-malthusian predictions; the condemnation of those who are closest to the land, who must be part of any sound environmental policy - these were their downfall. I think a lot of lessons have been learned since then, and I believe that the environmental movement is reviving and environmental consciousness is becoming more common. But we're still struggling and now, partly because of those early missteps, we have far more obstacles to overcome.