Happy Earth Day
Environmentalism—rightly understood, which is to say, putting people first—is at its heart conservative.
Happy Earth Day, TAC reader. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million of our fellow Americans gathered across the country to enjoy beautiful spring weather—in the 60s and clear in D.C. and New York—and demand that the country do all in its power to preserve the health of our world. While the cause was the planet, the location was cities. An increasingly urban America at last understood its own artificial environments to be instruments with which we shape the earth and ourselves. Soil, air, and water did not only exist “out there” in some wilderness, but were the media of life in a metropolis, too.
Earth Day represents the shift from conservation and ecology to popular environmentalism, the introduction of an ideological and political valence to discussion of our obligations to defend natural resources. Consequently, Earth Day was the harbinger of our modern environmental regulatory regime. As I wrote in my cover essay for TAC’s March/April print magazine:
Two centuries of industrial revolution reached a crisis point in the 1960s. In the aftermath of world wars that had scarred the planet and summoned forth the prospect of nuclear winter, the dangers of unregulated manufacturing became too obvious to ignore. Denis Hayes, who helped coordinate the first Earth Day before a long career in environmental advocacy, encapsulates the mood of the time: “If the environment is a fad, it’s going to be our last fad.” Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring brought the potential human health impact of pesticides home to a reading public, eventually leading to the near total ban of DDT. Air pollution was visible and its effects felt every day, prompting formation of what a wit at the Wall Street Journal called the “Breathers Lobby.” In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire more dramatically than usual. Something had to be done.
Capturing the spirit of the first Earth Day, Hayes’s statement referenced here continues as follows: “We are building a movement, a movement with a broad base, a movement which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a movement that values people more than technology, people more than political boundaries, people more than profit.”
That should be a clarion call to anyone sympathetic with the work of The American Conservative. Indeed, so confident am I in our work to describe and encourage the humane mode of living we call conservative, I add that Hayes’s words should be a clarion call to all who call themselves conservatives. As Quill Robinson of the American Conservation Coalition wrote in NRO this morning, of his journey rightward:
I realized that liberal climate leaders had repeatedly decided that they could afford to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The Sierra Club lobbied against nuclear power, America’s greatest source of clean energy. Green groups dismissed carbon capture, a technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and crusaded against natural gas, the cleaner fuel that has helped the United States lead the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What confused me most, even more than liberal climate leaders’ backward policies, was that their appetite for actionable solutions shrank at the same time that their rhetoric became more apocalyptic.
The progressive establishment makes environmentalism a cover for the preservation of their own unsustainable lifestyles, shifting blame for the despoiling of the earth from the choices of corporate power and the lawmakers they own to the consumer choices of average Americans. In practice, too many of the green activists of our moment seek to make the world a park and plaything for billionaires, leaving we the people in conditions even more miserable than those they claim to save us from. But we can change that. Environmentalism—rightly understood, which is to say, putting people first—is at its heart conservative, and Earth Day should be a conservative day. Go outside and enjoy it.