We live in a polarized country where you either March For Science or Make America Great Again. This Earth Day Week, sandwiched in between to major rallies, I feel like I fall in no-man’s land: a left-leaning environmental masters’ graduate who will sit out these marches as a conscientious objector.
About eight years ago, just before Obama was elected the first time, the New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman came to my college to talk about his climate change book “Hot, Flat and Crowded” (he was in the middle of his “environmentalist” phase, which I liked much more than his current “techno-optimist” persona). He said what we needed was a green revolution, when all we were getting was a green party (but not a political one; they’re still a nonfactor). In a revolution, he explained to the audience, there are battles to be fought, winners and losers, whereas at the time he saw too much greenwashing among both individuals and companies/organizations, posturing instead of meaningful action.
Flash forward to 2017, and the posturing has only increased, while all the meaningful action is now in favor of the fossil fuel industry (hello again, Keystone Pipeline! Barf). In my opinion, any marching done on behalf of the environment, or science generally, is tangential to the goals and aims for protecting the climate and our environment. Marching will not clean up the water in Flint, or remove carbon from the atmosphere, and it will not direct action towards doing so. Even worse, the sense of catharsis produced from being among many like-minded individuals, and hearing motivational feel-good speeches, may lead people to believe that progress is inevitable, when the reality is that the environmental movement, if it can even be called a “movement” anymore, has been dealt a crushing blow with the rise of Trump, to cap off several decades of relative inaction and rising denialism. Many communications experts believe negativity only encourages paralysis and defeatism, but I think we need to grapple with the truth that there are no longer piecemeal or slow-progressive solutions to keep us from the consequences of runaway global warming…and the most powerful man in the world is…not Al Gore.
Furthermore, a march for “science” is not necessarily the same thing as a march to preserve the environment. In an article featured in The Atlantic [This article] by Andrew Jewett warns that a focus on ‘science’, without any concern for underlying values, is inherently problematic. Indeed, there is nothing “unscientific” about solutions to climate change such as geo-engineering the atmosphere; the mechanisms and innovation necessary for hydraulic fracturing are very scientific. The real issue is recognizing what we want to achieve—say, a more compassionate world that values nature as having its own intrinsic worth—and how to enact policies to achieve it. This also involves changing hearts and minds.
In Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything”, she begins with the provocative claim that climate deniers understand the science better than many Democrats, or least the implications. Saving the planet is not as easy as shopping at Whole Foods or switching to a paleo diet or buying a hybrid; it may require wholesale lifestyle changes among the entire western world. Conservative business interests in America have helped frame the problem as a cultural one, and liberals have played right into their hand, and continue to do so with misplaced stunts.
That said, I do not fault anyone for taking part in these marches; public protesting and meaningful action are not mutually exclusive, and right now millions of Americans are anxious about the direction of this country and western (global?) society as a whole. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much more anyone can do at the moment than voice their outrage among friends and colleagues for the damage done to our planet. The same cannot be said, however, for environmental organizations who have largely dropped the ball (the globe?). This is especially true for large national groups that rake in millions of donor dollars, only to be caught in the rat race for superficial prestige and visibility; I was very disappointed interning for such an NGO two years ago and helping to put on a greenwashing concert which ended up trashing the National Mall. In choosing the wrong campaigns and hypocritical positions, there is an opportunity cost, and a disappointing abdication of grassroots leadership.
Thus I’ll end with a plea for local environmental organizations to take a more active role in their communities. We need more events like recycling drives or library lectures, and attempts to reach across the political spectrum (note: this means reaching out to regular ole’ “deplorables”, not lobbyists or government spokesmen). I would like to see environmental groups make an honest effort to change minds and the status quo, and not just triangulate crowd-pleasing sermons for the already-converted. We need, as Richard Louv said this month, “An NRA For Nature.” The planet can’t afford anything less right now.