We Have Lost the Fight for the Planet
In 1970, the first Earth Day brought 20 million Americans—10 percent of the entire population—to a nationwide protest. This was the tail end of the Vietnam Era, when young people were justifiably outraged at a system that had failed them and their planet. Sensing a threat to their interests, however, business leaders such as future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell fought back so that the “enterprise system” might dominate the national conversation.
The burgeoning green movement was hit hard. Anything a good environmentalist wants—transition to renewable and clean fuels, penalties for poor stewardship of the planet, protection of the wild—is hostile to business interests; therefore, our predecessors found themselves derided as anarchists and shunted to the fringe of politics. Years later, we found ourselves ignored through an entire presidential campaign, then saddled with a laughable excuse for an environmentalist in the White House.
We seem to have given up the hope of change in favor of begging anybody in power to listen to us. Change seems so glacially slow that, were severe weather to wipe out America’s agriculture and industry, one could imagine there would still be climate deniers. It’s time to face the question: What if our movement has lost?
It’s a question with a number of questions nested inside it. First of all, what battle did we lose? The answer is the battle to make mainstream the view that the change we need is radical. Ever since “green” became a thing you could be, the evolution of thought has been incremental, with the increments shrinking as the years roll by. We can’t seem to wrap our minds around the concept of a time clock—the more we dither, the more of the planet is irreversibly altered, and the change won’t wait for decision makers to roll the dilemma over to the next administration.
By the time awareness of the problem reaches a significant level, the problem has changed. Since green advocates are always playing catch-up, we’re unlikely to implement anything meaningful until it’s too late. This is what I mean when I say we have lost: The wall of uncertainty and willful ignorance is insurmountable in its present form.
The next question we must ask is: What were the wages of this fight? What is at stake if we won’t get the needed change in time? This one is more difficult to answer. Climate projection is a slippery thing at the best of times, and the exact result of the greenhouse effect seems to be constantly receding away from us. What we can know is that the new Earth will be drastically different enough to change the rules of the game.
The environmental movement lost this particular battle because we pitted an intangible danger—“things will get worse in the future”—against a tangible one—“taxes and regulations will hurt our markets right now.” The truth is that the planet does not care about us. It will respond to these changes and will eventually process all this carbon, and it won’t mind if civilization has been damaged so irreparably that we are no longer capable of pollution. Environmentalists must now turn our attention toward our own preservation.
This brings me to the final question that makes up the big one. What do we, as environmentalists, now owe the movement? The grip of the enterprise system is too strong to change minds, but neither can we sit back and wait for our chance to say “I told you so.” What we must do now is take the role of the innovators. Our enemies, Powell’s free-market plutocrats, label us socialists and communists because they have no other words to apply to change which they fear.
Let them languish. No environmentalist will be caught unawares by the new world, nor will we spite one whose mind changes too late. The Kochs have suggested we “adapt,” but they do not know it’s their model which is unsustainable, not ours. This is what we owe the movement now: not to waste our time trying to convince politicians, but to become the guides that inform regular people why their planet is changing, and how they can survive and thrive. The good environmentalist must be well aware that there is nothing we can do to permanently damage the planet—climate change is a human issue. We have built our new world, but only those who acknowledge it will be able to live in it.
The last time humanity was threatened by climatic fluctuation, we invented agriculture. I can’t wait to see what will happen this time.