How Environmentalism Lost By Winning
Earth Day just isn’t what it used to be.
In second grade, I dressed up as Rachel Carson for a school project on heroes. My mom, a flight attendant, had petitioned me to be Amelia Earhart, but as an aspiring veterinarian/zookeeper, all it took was learning that Carson had saved the bald eagles!!! for me to make up my mind.
In truth, Amelia Earhart never stood a chance. Environmentalism was everywhere in the 1990s and early 2000s when I was growing up. I became obsessed with endangered animals after learning about them on the back of Welch jam jars; I stuffed a World Wildlife Fund-branded leopard plushie during a birthday party at Build-a-Bear and adopted an Orca for Christmas; and during a fifth-grade unit on the tropical rainforest, I was outraged to learn that bad guys were cutting it down.
Concerns about nature and conservation were my primary entry points into the climate movement when I got older, though at a certain point, I stopped openly calling myself “an environmentalist.” It wasn’t really a conscious choice.
But in setting out this week to write about how the original Earth Day movement — which, at its inception in 1970, involved one in 10 Americans — dwindled into what it is today, a corporate greenwashing bonanza, I now believe my abandonment of the “environmentalist” label is indicative of something more significant, a shift in the movement’s public identity. Earth Day and by extension, environmentalism, used to be cool, as Liza Featherstone reminded readers in The New Republic last year; the movement, for a time, occupied a sweet spot of being both “radical and mainstream.” But somewhere along the line, environmentalism lost its edge.
Many autopsies have been conducted on the modern environmental movement, some more literal than others. It’s easy to forget now, though, that environmentalism was once very much alive. Silent Spring, published in 1962, helped heighten Americans’ awareness of environmental issues (in addition to work by other oft-overlooked grassroots activists); an oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, subsequently helped galvanize them. In the aftermath, Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson organized nationwide “teach-ins” about environmental issues, picking the date of April 22, 1970, when college students would be on spring break. By the time the first Earth Day arrived, though, some 20 million Americans showed up for events and marches around the country, helping make it the biggest single-day protest in human history.
What followed was the golden age of environmentalism. “In May 1971, fully a quarter of the public thought that protecting the environment was important,” up from a mere 1% two years earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website recounts. The EPA itself was created out of that momentum; Congress also passed the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the lesser-known Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act — a Carson throwback that regulated pesticides. Sierra Club and Greenpeace memberships skyrocketed.
The momentum carried into the 1980s: victims of industrial pollution successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Superfund law to clean up toxic sites; the “Save the Whales” campaign achieved a global moratorium on commercial whaling; and in 1988, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen warned Congress that it was “99% certain that the [planet’s] warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.”
By then, though, industry, business, and conservative politicians had begun to mobilize a quiet counterattack. In the provocative 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus cite a market research survey that found the number of Americans who agreed with the statement “we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future [in order to preserve jobs]” increased from 17% in 1996 to 26% in 2000, while the number of Americans who believed “most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,” increased from 32% to 41% over the same years.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement was undertaking a long overdue self-examination. “When the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should ‘concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,’ 40% of respondents were strongly opposed, and only 15% were supportive,” The New Yorker writes in a history of the racist roots of the environmental movement (which, it should be noted, go back further and deeper than the original Earth Day). By the 1990s, activists were calling out the fact that minorities made up less than 2% of the combined employees at the top environmental groups in the country. Modern environmentalism has never managed to fully shake the ensuing criticism that it is a white person’s cause.
The narrowness of the environmental movement’s vision also hindered its ability to adapt to the new political landscape. Adam Werbach, an ex-president of the Sierra Club, wrote in his own 2004 postmortem of the movement that while it was perhaps necessary to “package seal pups, redwoods, clean air, Yosemite, clean water, and toxic waste under the brand of ‘environmentalism’ in order to pass a raft of environmental laws in the 1970s,” for “at least 20 years and maybe longer, the basic categorical assumptions that underlie environmentalism have inhibited the environmental movement’s ability to consider opportunities outside environmental boundaries.” Jenny Price, the author of Stop Saving the Planet: An Environmentalist Manifesto, expressed a similar sentiment more recently to Grist: “The environment is not just ‘out there,’” she explained, even though environmentalism has often treated the natural world as a separate “thing” that needs to be saved. Environmentalism is also, though, “our food, the wood in our houses, and the metals in our computers.”
But the real reason environmentalism lost its edge might be that it actually became too mainstream. In the late 1960s, almost no one thought protecting the environment was important; today, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they worry about the environment and four in 10 say they are environmentalists. Businesses jostle to be labeled the “greenest” and “most sustainable”; oil companies brazenly attempt to brand themselves as good for the Earth. Even former President Donald Trump has nonsensically insisted on the 2024 campaign trail that he is an environmentalist.
At the same time, environmentalism is no longer centralized enough to notch policy wins, and professed commitment to the cause flags when it becomes inconvenient or costly; it is human consumption, after all, that is “the primary driver of environmental problems,” as Magali A. Delmas and David Colgan write in The Green Bundle: Pairing the Market with the Planet. Many environmentalists are fair-weather fans; concern about the environment tends to go up when concerns about the economy go down, and vice versa; support wanes once Americans are asked to burden the cost. Still, environmentalism’s core ideas — that our surroundings matter and need protection — have become entrenched cultural values, even if only in spirit.
At the same time, a breakaway wing of the environmental movement has begun pushing back on the more traditional and conservationist faction. In an essay that begins with the words “I’m an environmentalist,” Bill McKibben recently argued in Mother Jones for building out “lots of solar panels and wind farms and battery arrays,” even if and when it requires “aesthetic” intrusions into the natural world. Longtime Sierra Club member and author Rebecca Solnit has also made a surprising, and similar, argument in favor of mining lithium and cobalt, which “will be an inevitable part of building renewables.” Yes, mining will have an environmental cost, but it’s one that realistically “needs to be weighed against the far more devastating impact of mining for and burning fossil fuel.”
This is not yet a mainstream viewpoint, though. Four in every five Americans say conserving local land and wildlife is more important than building new sources of renewable electricity, even if that means slowing down the world’s response to climate change, a Heatmap Climate Poll found.
It’s ironic that the environmental movement might have been so successful that it sometimes blocks the action required to save the places it professes to love. Admittedly, the new branch isn’t likely to inspire first graders to dress up as wind turbines for class projects, and solar farms aren’t likely to have branded partnerships with teddy-bear-making workshops.
But it’s new. It’s bold. It’s exciting. You might even call it edgy.