Let’s not blow this

There’s still time to avoid the mistakes of past eco efforts that left our habitat in worse shape than before


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Fortunately, luck is with us yes. there’s lots of scary news about global warming, but don’t slip into the mire. Unlike earlier waves of environmentalism, we meet today’s eco crises fully loaded.

In contrast to earlier green movements, we now have a reawakened public with access to decentralized info never before available, a range of eco technologies that can be bought off the shelf, grassroots groups with deep know-how and a list of options that are ready to go.

And just as important, there’s still time to avoid the fate of past eco efforts that in their wake left our human habitat in worse shape than before.

Make no mistake, we have what it takes to do the turnaround in time for the first Kyoto deadline of 2010. We just need our enviro champions to be strategic. Here’s my short list of movement to-dos and to-don’ts:

1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, as we did during wave three (see sidebar) by taking on entrenched interests that can swat head-on assaults like mosquitoes. I’m thinking here of campaigns like that against PVCs or persistent organic pollutants, both of which I championed back then. There’s wisdom in separating immediate deliverables from tomorrow’s issues.

We can’t match the resources of polluter money at the moment, and the end results don’t justify the energy it takes to butt heads. After years of toxics campaigning, for example, there are more killer chems out there than ever before. You can win the law and then lose it all and more in regulations. Trying to take on power you don’t have is a way of sidestepping the power you do have – one of the oldest “notion-of-motion” tricks of do-nothing politicians.

The flip side of the bang-head-against-wall impulse is the yearning for respectability, which leads to task forces and stakeholder groups that toady up to the filthy rich and their problems adjusting to new realities. If you look at enviro history, it’s easy to conclude that stakeholder panels are very low-yield sorts of endeavours from a green perspective.

Both these responses flow from a powerless model and are not a substitute for things you can do right away.

2. We need quick starts and a steady accumulation of victories. There may be lots of green talk these days, but, mirabile dictu, as the old Romans used to say, actual doables are scarce on any politicians or lobby group’s radar.

When have you heard pols pushing to source local and sustainable food for the thousands of institutions funded by governments? Industrial agriculture, a major source of greenhouse gas, oddly makes no appearance in public policy priority lists. Neither do subsidies to farmers to grow carbon-storing trees and carbon-avoiding windmills. Or payouts for bike lanes and electric-option bikes as common as sidewalks in all cities.

There aren’t even monetary punishments on gas-fired seadoos, skidoos, powerboats, lawn mowers and other “pleasure” (thanatos is a basic drive, Freud warned) vehicles that pollute much more than SUVs for no purpose. The amount of oil slick dumped in our waters every year by motor boats is equivalent to multiple Exxon Valdez’s.

3. The general point is to embed eco habits in the economy of daily life, rather than protecting green by isolating or regulating it. In earlier eco movements (see sidebar), for example, pols made a big deal of protecting parks and wildlife areas and then proceeded to allow the defiling of everything up to their boundaries. And what’s with establishing segregated environment ministries that are then sidelined and separated from the powerful departments of finance, agriculture, transportation and industry that they’re supposed to clean up after?

4. Worse than wasting energy, don’t waste your life and reputation in Darth Vader corporations. Find a job that makes green possible and profitable, making it easy for people to go green – join in the biggest business trend of the next century. There’s room for thousands of new occupations and businesses: organic landscapers, healthy home renovators, bicycle delivery systems, enviro lawyers, health workers, health food street vendors and hundreds more. You go, greens.

Washed out wave after wave

How the three surges of environmentalism crashed on the shoals of an ever toxifying planet.

1880s to 1920s

It’s no coincidence that the first green wave occurred in these years. This was when the norms of heavy industry were still new and open to question, and a more established, genteel, pre-industrial elite of professionals and aristocrats was there to fight for the better things in life.

We still enjoy many gifts left by environmentalists of that era. They created and protected wilderness parks in the spectacular Rocky and Sierra Mountains, for example. They established the first summer camps to introduce urban boys and girls to untamed nature. Whatever remains of rustic cottage country, a relic of the days when we got away from it all instead of taking it all with us, we owe to those times. That generation also left us such words as “wildlife,” “conservation” and “protection.”

And then came the 1930s economic bust, the 1940s world war and 1950s Cold War and business boom that promised to create the “affluent society.” By the 1960s, whatever was saved by the first wave was marginalized, and the entire world was awash in a new class of toxic chlorine-based chemicals and motorized vehicles.

1960s & 70s

The second wave came at a time when humans first saw their magnificent but fragile “spaceship earth” from the outside in, when people sought alternative lifestyles, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, when Frances Moore Lappe wrote Diet For A Small Planet and senior business leaders talked about limits to growth. It saw the first Earth Day and the first politicians identifying government responsibility for clean air and water.

Then came OPEC, economic stagflation and a world newly awash in junk food and plastics in a worse way than ever. The regulations of the 70s, Barry Commoner later said, only legitimated an overall increase in the use of toxins. Less fuel and lead in more motors and factories was not a decrease.

1980s & 90s

This surge dissipated right in the middle of what was supposed to be the turnaround decade, which failed to turn. Those times brought us the North American acid rain treaty, Bob Hunter and epic standoffs to spare remaining wilderness areas from the axe, and exposés of the bottomless pit of woe accompanying nuke power. It brought the beginnings of organic ag and solar PVs and the writings of alternative energy guru Amory Lovins. It brought the prophecies of Bill McKibben and David Suzuki, the start-up of green economics and environmental bills of rights.

And after the third wave, we face plane travel as a normalized way of getting around, air mile points, increases in long-distance food, SUVs, jeeps, landfills crammed with toxic waste from disposable electronics, GE foods and a whole series of death-instinct technologies and weapons that should have been voted off the island if we wanted to stay tuned as Survivors.

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