by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
Last week, on April 22, 2016, came the 47th observation of Earth Day. “Earth Day” – a day to celebrate Mother Earth and take some care to honor, respect, and protect her. Who couldn’t love such an idea?
A lot of people, apparently. Since its beginning in 1970, Earth Day has been a source not just of controversy but of opposition and opprobrium. Yes, there is a cohort of Earth Day antagonists, and it is but one manifestation of a widespread hostility to environmental consciousness and care.
Image credit: punjabigraphics.com
What’s behind the loathing of what should be a simple idea that is broad in concept, easy to appreciate, and seems to have a sensible and universally acceptable intent?
I first discovered it a quarter-century or so ago, when I was reading the newsletter published by right-wing icon and radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh. Carefully placed in small type at the bottom of the page was this smug little comment: “Not printed on recycled paper.” The implication is, “In your face, tree-huggers! We don’t give a damn because we don’t have to!” “Power concedes nothing,” indeed!
There is nothing inherently sinister about not using recycled paper, but why brag about it? What is the value of telling your readers about your purposeful profligacy and waste of natural resources? Therein we find the seeds of the anti-environmental movement.
Eccentric talk-radio figure Glenn Beck spent most of the third week of April lambasting Earth Day as the holy day of granola-eating, sandal-wearing hippies who refuse to accept what he believes is humanity’s place in the world. Here is what his website said on April 18: “Earth Day isn’t really about picking trash in your local park or remembering to recycle your soda can. It isn’t even about hugging a tree. It has never been that innocent. Earth Day is a yearly reminder that humanity must be controlled, manipulated and even destroyed for the good of the planet.”
In other words, Beck contemptuously stated, Earth Day is a vicious attack on the cherished notion of human superiority. It is an assertion that we of the species homo sapiens are not a special creation designed to dominate the earth and put here to rule it.
I have critiqued this sort of thinking before, particularly in my August 2015 post “Why Cecil the Lion Matters.” In it I pointed out that trophy hunting is but one manifestation of an anthropocentric attitude holding that humans are not part of the earth and the natural world. That those things are here for our taking, and as long as we have the capability to exercise our power, we are free – indeed, obliged – to do so for our own benefit, comfort and convenience.
Anti-environmental sentiment is about more than biological domination, too. It is entangled with political domination. There is a segment of the population – particularly in this country, but found worldwide – that sees environmentalism as part of a conspiracy of globalism. Globalism, of course, is anathema to nationalistic glory-seeking. To those who believe in their country’s superiority, environmentalism is like any other uprising of world-consciousness. In it they find a threat that internationalists will corrupt our young people by making them believe that they are citizens of the planet. There is something very disturbing to the powerful in the idea that we have a shared responsibility to the Earth. Young people, they fear, might start thinking of themselves as Earthlings first and Americans second, joining with like-minded others around the world to create an international community that may become more important than any individual nation.
The American credo for nearly five centuries after the European incursion was, “Spoil our nest and move on West.” We didn’t have to care about the environment, because there was more of the same on down the road. We could befoul the water, air, and land and then abandon it for the next stretch of unspoiled, exploitable territory as the frontier inexorably moved into the undeveloped regions of the Great West.
In the 1890s, it was announced that the frontier was closed. There was no more expansion to be made; we had reached the territorial limit. No more moving on west, but it didn’t stop us from continuing to spoil our nest. We kept on exploiting our surroundings. We kept on creating waste and throwing it away even when there was no more “away” to throw it into.
People are not the masters of nature. It is obvious that we have some limited control, but, in the last analysis, we are not exempt from ultimate control of the forces of nature. Darwin’s observation is still valid. When the environment changes – no matter who or what is responsible for that change – those organisms (in the short run) and those species (in the long run) best able to comply with or adapt to the change will be the survivors. There is no way to dispute that; it is tautological.
The war on Earth Day is premised on the “I do what I want to do” mentality of the self-serving. It presupposes that environmental responsibility is ipso facto an assault on freedom. Yet we yield innumerable freedoms every day for the greater good. We obey laws. We stop at red lights. We do not steal from our neighbors. We pay our taxes. For our own safety we do not walk down the middle of the street or venture into the tiger exhibit at the zoo.
Each of those activities carries a risk, and that risk is usually an immediate one or at least one which will affect us in the short term. Long-term, far-away, or hard-to-understand risks, such as climate change caused by global warming, are not perceived as equally great risks. The line attributed to Groucho Marx comes to mind: “Why should I do anything for posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
Ultimately, the war on Earth Day comes down to a conflict over priorities. The here and now versus the future. Us versus them. Money versus people. Convenience versus responsibility. However, in order to perpetuate and advance that war, those who wage it must disguise their true intentions. They must create some misleading diversions, such as that environmental responsibility does not help humanity, but harms it. That environmentalists are internationalists who hate American exceptionalism. That Earth Day is the product of distorted, even criminal, minds (anti-environmentalists credit Ira Einhorn, a convicted murderer, with creating Earth Day, even though that canard has been fully discredited).
How important is Earth Day? Judge that by the number and viciousness of the enemies it has attracted.