On one level, the green movement won the game a long time ago: It convinced the majority of Americans that ecosystem destruction is a serious problem. Today 73 percent of Americans say they are worried about the environment. So why can’t we convert concern into transformative action? I believe that the business of sounding the alarm tends to work against the business of getting things done.
I grew up in the age of environmental alarm. The klaxons were blaring nonstop by the time I was born, eight years after the first Earth Day. By the time I was in fourth grade, all of my classmates were environmentalists. But by the eighth grade we were over it, and mutinous.
“Watch this,” I remember my friend Matt saying before crumbling a chunk of CFC-rich Styrofoam. “Die ozone.”
Other kids, who had once stayed after school to paint “Save the Rainforest” signs, started taking a perverse pleasure in dropping their Twinkies wrappers on the field. It wasn’t that we’d stopped caring; it was that we cared too much. The news of environmental decline was so upsetting, so hopeless, that the only rational response was to renounce our stake in it.
My generation was bequeathed ecological anxiety, but not the tools to change much of anything. A series of teachers had done their part, screening documentary horror films about the destruction of the planet. When teachers did suggest token measures, they were so obviously inadequate that they appeared condescending and ridiculous. I still find it unfair for a teacher to show children images of the rainforest’s cathedral groves burning and then turn to the rows of stricken faces and instruct them to make dioramas about recycling.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out how I could be useful. I wrote essays designed to open the hearts of the evildoers. But I came to understand that most “evildoers” were just like me: already convinced, but impotent. I fantasized about monkeywrenching – and would have jumped at the chance to do something revolutionary and stupid if anyone had offered it. But my mind changed about this, too. What was needed were strong social structures to bring about massive change, not the chaos of revolution.
Although my writing didn’t convert green villains, it did help me see that there were three themes common to the environmental evangelism of my youth that, for me at least, worked against the business of actually getting things done. First, nature was depicted as spectacular and pristine. Second, the conflict was simplified to good versus evil. And third, humans were always the evil.
Focusing on the parts of nature that are untouched and remote makes it hard for anyone, let alone school kids, to help. Dramatizing the conflict as a moral battle between good and evil makes incremental tinkering and compromise (which is usually how things work) look like a deal with the devil. Finally, when humans are always the problem it’s hard to see how anything we do could be a solution. The best thing I could do for nature, I learned as a child, was to stay out of it. When human touch can only spread decay, the role for a young environmentalist grows claustrophobically narrow. He becomes a scold, battling humanity’s sprawling exuberance.
We could harness that sprawling exuberance as a force for environmental good if we reversed these tendencies. That would mean focusing on the nature at hand (close enough for kids to get their hands dirty in it); striving to understand and work with the economic and ideological opposition; and holding out the possibility that humanity can improve, not just degrade, the ecosystem.
My favorite example of a school program that gets this right is Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed. Every year, kids approach landowners to restore riparian plant communities to streams damaged by agricultural erosion. It’s in their backyards, so they can do it themselves. They partner with ranchers and businesses, rather than demonizing them. Each project shows that human industry can go hand in hand with nature’s industry.
All this amounts to simply learning to engage in politics. Not the Hollywood version of politics, where the environmentalist gives a dramatic speech that awakens the conscience of the bad guys – but the unglamorous form of politics that occurs everyday between neighbors and on city councils. This is modest, frustrating work. It’s also the work that’s needed to convert the age of environmental alarm into the age of environmental action.