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Earth Day at 50: ‘One of most successful social movements in modern history is nevertheless self-limited by its repellent fanaticism’ – ‘Hair-shirt wailing’

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day ought to be a big occasion, with large public rallies and self-congratulatory observances along with hair-shirt wailing about the imminent end of the world from climate change. But the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown has eclipsed this solemn high holy day in ways that may have a lasting effect on environmentalism long after the economy and normal social life recover.

The paradox of environmentalism is that it is one of the most successful social movements in modern history that is nevertheless self-limited by its repellent fanaticism. Measured by the immense improvements in environmental quality in the U.S., the burst of environmental policy and action since the first Earth Day constitute arguably the most effective domestic policy initiative of our time. Deliberate care for the environment is now firmly institutionalized nationally and globally, and is a settled middle-class value, as best expressed in the League of Conservation Voters bumper stickers (“I vote to protect the environment!”) I have spotted on the backs of Ford Explorer V-8s and Winnebago RVs.

Whether environmental policies were entirely reasonable or cost-effective is another matter, but the decline in most forms of pollution across the board are greater in magnitude than the more celebrated drop in the crime rate or the large reduction in welfare dependency from welfare reform in the 1990s. The congenital Malthusianism of environmentalists, however, prevents them from celebrating this progress or learning the lessons (chiefly economic growth and technological improvement more than lawsuits) that could inform the next generation of environmental policy. To the contrary, many environmentalists will fly into a rage when you point out the facts of this immense improvement, because belief in the end of the world is their chief source of happiness.

Environmentalism attempts from time to time to shake off its Malthusian debilitations (“Ecomodernism” is one promising strain that departs from the old time religion), but in the main most environmentalists invariably imitate the alcoholic who drops out of a 12-step program and succumbs to a bender at the nearest well-lit tavern. Its current reincarnation goes under the banner of the “Degrowth movement,” which is just the old Malthusian whine in a recycled bottle.

The trouble for environmentalists is that the public is getting a big taste of degrowth right now with the current privation and danger from a more immediate threat than climate change. To a public that has been showing signs of apocalypse fatigue for some time, it is dawning on many that the current lockdown, and the palpable enthusiasm of so many politicians toward extreme control, is a dry run for the permanent regimentation of the Green New Deal. To which many environmentalists lend credence with their current celebrations of how great it is that the lockdown is lowering pollution, not to mention some famous old environmental hits such as the research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, David Graber, who wrote years ago in the Los Angeles Times that humans “have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth… Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” (Think of Graber as a member of the Deep-Six State perhaps.)

As equally debilitating as Malthusianism is the way environmentalism after Earth Day became fully an adjunct of leftism. It is still occasionally recalled that the first Earth Day was a wholly bipartisan project, with support from President Richard Nixon, Governor Ronald Reagan (“[There is an] absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment,” Reagan said in 1970), along with liberal Democrats like Sen. Gaylord Nelson. The activist left was split on “ecology” at the time, worried that it would distract from the anti-war and civil rights movements. Some leftist groups and civil rights leaders advocating a boycott of the first Earth Day. Time magazine quoted a “black militant” in Chicago saying, “Ecology? I don’t give a good goddamn about ecology!”

It did not take long for the activist left to recognize the potential of environmentalism for what became known as “watermelon” politics: green on the outside, red on the inside. The New Republic columnist James Ridgeway wrote shortly after the First Earth day: “Ecology offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of remaking society . . . [and] developing a more coherent central state. . .” The major environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, which once boasted many Republican supporters, swung hard to the left. It’s only a hop, skip, and jump to the current attitude expressed in Democratic Congressman James Clyburn’s statement that the coronavirus crisis is “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”

Hence, demands for airlines to cut their carbon footprint at a moment no one is flying. At the same time, the paranoia of environmentalism can be seen in their rising fear of “avocado politics”— green on the outside, brown on the inside — in which conservatives might embrace the environment as a cause, but graft it to fascism. This is yet another sign that activist environmentalism has become a sect more than a broad-based social movement as it began.

It is too soon to know the lasting social and political effects of the coronavirus crisis, but my hunch is that there will not be a 100th Earth Day hootenanny in 2070. The first Earth Day is going to be remembered in much the same way we regard the Temperance movement, as a quaint misadventure even though we are today more health conscious and temperate partly because of it. Environmental problems there will surely be, but by degrees we are coming to see that the environment is much too important to be left to frivolous environmentalists.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Research at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of The Almanac of Environmental Trends (2011).