The modern environmental movement was born, it is often said, on April 22nd, 1970. In the impassioned aftermath of that first Earth Day twenty years ago, millions of people here and abroad began to think about the ecological consequences of their actions; in this country, the Environmental Protection agency was created, and Congress passed the first Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
And yet, on the whole and around the globe, the last two decades have not been particularly kind to either the environment or the movement. We’ve allowed our air and water to become more toxic –— not less. We’ve punctured holes in the heavens. We’ve laid waste to millions of acres of lush tropical rain forest, stripping the planet of essential biological diversity. We’ve created garbage dumps the size of national parks because we’re running short on places to dispose of our household and industrial waste. And we may already have so overloaded the earth’s upper atmosphere with gases from our cars, factories and power plants that our weather system may never again be so benign.
THE GREAT CHALLENGE OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT TODAY IS TO LEAD US BEYOND BIODEGRADABLE CHIC INTO A NEW ERA OF GLOBAL CONSENSUS AND LASTING CHANGE.
But now we appear to be waking from our long slumber. Polls say that three out of four Americans call themselves “environmentalists” —– but what does that mean? Does it mean that from here on in we will all be against dirty air? That we will spurn disposable diapers? Buy only ultra-low-flush toilets? Or is something larger at stake?
The great challenge to the environmental movement today is to lead us beyond biodegradable chic into a new era of global consensus and lasting change. It must dare us all to look at environmentalism not just as a checklist of convenient do’s and don’ts but as a fundamental shift in our psyches and values – in the way we treat the planet that imbues us with life. Otherwise, there’s a real danger that Earth Day 1990 will end up like its predecessor, fading quickly from memory after an initial burst of activity. Twenty years from now, we’ll know in no uncertain terms whether we have the right to call ourselves environmentalists.