Forty years ago today, 20 million Americans took to the streets. They were marching for the first ever Earth day… many had anger and defiance over the level of degradation and pollution that surrounded them.  Others rallied in more of an optimistic spirit, celebrating the beauty and wonder of their home planet… Certainly a lot has happened since this eventful day in 1970.  The debate over environmental rights has seen many ups and downs.

One pivotal moment occurred on April 18th 1977, when president Jimmy Carter delivered a televised speech urging his fellow Americans to take energy and environmental issues seriously. His words were direct,  America chose not to listen… they didn’t take too keenly to words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘challenge’.  Instead, they committed to a deeper addiction of non-renewable and polluting energy sources, choosing not to think about long-term supplies or big picture consequences.  And here we are today… a generation later facing the same issues of energy and environmental policy, our hand even deeper in the cookie jar, with stakes exponentially higher.

Well, what can we learn from the successes and failures of the past 40 years, and how can we move forward to create timely and meaningful change before we truly pass the point of no return? I’m gonna take a couple minutes and address three main issues I feel can move the environmental movement forward in the coming years.

1. Environment vs. Economy: During the Carter/Reagan debates of 1980, two environmental ideologies clashed head on…  Individuals who sided with Reagan and conservatism felt that environmental initiatives directly related to more government regulation and higher taxes. They did not like this. They created a mindset that any effort of eco-stewardship came at the expense of the economy. Huge corporations joined the debate and funded anti-environmental initiatives… their power and persuasion grew, grabbing the mindshare of hundreds of millions of Americans along the way.

This environment vs economy struggle is still very much alive today and by the looks of it will only escalate as we continue to face tough economic times. Instead of maintaining a combative mindset, I feel environmentalists could make tremendous strides by better using the economists own game against them. When it comes down to it, sustainability almost always equals better economics (when addressed properly). A continued focus on transparency and the incorporation of externalized costs will increasingly level the playing field and make short-term profits look like really awful long-term investments.  If we can better articulate the true costs of our disposable lifestyles, it will be significantly easier to sell conservation. Let’s use the environmentally destructive fast food model as an example… instead of seeing it as an economic savior for low-income individuals, we must rephrase it as an industry that interferes with citizen’s rights to access healthy, affordable food. If we incorporate the costs of obesity, diabetes, rain forest depletion for increased livestock grazing, carbon and methane emissions, groundwater toxification and so on into the price of a value meal, it would quickly lose its economic edge.  To this point we haven’t been able to find a creative way to portray this type of message, so this is a huge opportunity for improvement.

Along these lines, environmentalists need to do a much better job of selling the idea of natural capital (the value of nature’s services). The mindset of the past several generations has been that of exploitation = income. Cutting down trees, mining oil, and bottling water are all examples of how we take something that’s virtually free and sell it as GDP… this is the foundation of our economy and obviously it is unsustainable. A study a couple of years back looked at natural capital and determined that the services nature provides for us is the equivalent of $33 trillion dollars/yr, while the global gross national product sits around $18 trillion/yr. This certainly doesn’t mean that we have a lot more profit out there to pillage, rather that leaving it intact makes better economic sense. The same study determined that on an annual basis, preserving an ecosystem vs selling it for its parts is 82% more profitable when considering air quality, water management, property values, etc.

2. New paradigm: A second idea off freshifying environmentalism is to continually break down barriers of what is possible. Nothing articulates this idea better than Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Anyone who’s paying attention to our global condition will confidently tell you that we must do more than tweak a few things here or there to maintain long-term stability. Environmentalist’s current mindset of ‘a little less bad is good’ will not alone get us to where we need to go… there is far too much at stake to rely on this. In the built environment, the Living Building Challenge is trying to rethink what is possible by creating a standard of restorative buildings, structures that have not only eliminate their negative impacts, but actually produce energy and food, treat water, and filter air. These buildings will have no operating costs once constructed… how’s that for good economics!?!

This is the type of innovation that is needed right now, and the value of creative experimentation must gain stronger support. Obviously this is easier said than done in a system that fears change… the Living Building Challenge can again be seen as an example here.  They are working with local communities on creating demonstration project ordinances, which would make it much easier for cutting-edge projects to hurdle code barriers that restrict innovation.  Basically, stronger innovation in all aspects of of sustainable development will raise the ceiling of human potential, thus pulling with it the floor. Everyone wins.

3. Personal commitments: Finally, the third area for improvement I will briefly discuss is the role of the educated individual. Ecological awareness has increased tremendously since the first Earth day 40 years ago…the tools and information that is available today is absolutely incredible… while technological advancements have grown, it seems that personal will power has diminished. Despite our increased awareness of consequences, Americans are driving more, eating more meat, and consuming more than ever before.  A recent Gallup poll studied the environmental behaviors of Americans and found that we are basically saying ‘Me first, Planet later’… no good!

How can this be with all the green this, green that being thrown around? Clearly there are thousands of reasons, but a prominent one is that what we’re fighting against is becoming increasingly invisible. The first Earth day was a protest against smoggy cities, toxic rivers, and garbage-filled streets. We’ve done a great job of eliminating many of these issues, but in the process many of us declared mission accomplished and moved onto different and more immediate issues. Supporting this notion is the concept of inverted quarantine, which states that the development of the eco-consumer market is actually hurting the greater environmental movement by distracting empathetic individuals from meaningful actions…

Certainly political polarization and corporate interests are not helping much, but I place a huge amount of responsibility on the shoulders of American citizens. Over the years, we’ve gotten really good at holding businesses like Walmart and Nike accountable for their destructive actions, but we’ve failed to look in the mirror and hold ourselves to the same level of accountability. And I’m speaking primarily to people who call themselves progressive… It frustrates the hell out of me when I sit down with someone who’s passionately talking about Life Cycle Assessments while they’re eating a hamburger, or when I walk into a natural foods store that is using incandescent bulbs for lighting, or when I’m in a yoga class where 20+ healthy-minded individuals in the studio are drinking from disposable plastic bottles. The list could go on and on… basically, the mindset has increasingly become ‘eh, not my problem… someone else will deal with it.’  Well, who exactly is that someone else? If we keep postponing that someone, we will wake up one day in the not-so-distant future to find a world that is virtually uninhabitable.  And on this day we’ll no longer be able to play the anonymous card and say that we didn’t know, that we didn’t have the tools to go a different direction… I hope and pray that we find the courage to ensure that this day will never come…

Winding down with some words from that Jimmy Carter telecast 33 years ago:

“We have been proud of (America’s) leadership in the world.  Now we have a chance again to give the world a positive example.  And we have been proud of our vision of the future. We have always wanted to give our children and grandchildren a world richer in possibilities than we’ve had. They are the ones we must provide for now. They are the ones who will suffer most if we don’t act.

And we can be sure that all the special interest groups in the country will attack the part of this plan (progress) that affects them directly. They will say that sacrifice is fine, as long as other people do it, but that their sacrifice is unreasonable, or unfair, or harmful to the country. If they succeed, then the burden on the ordinary citizen, who is not organized into an interest group, would be crushing.

There should be only one test for this program: whether it will help our country.”

-j

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.