Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What happened to the environmental movement?

On the eve of Earth Day 2013, the New Yorker ran a lengthy review of Adam Rome’s new book, “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” There has been no major environmental legislation in the US since 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed a bill aimed at reducing acid rain. “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?” asks Nicholas Lemann.

According to Rome, the original Earth Day held on April 22, 1970 remains a model of effective political organizing. Senator Gaylord Nelson’s idea of a “teach-in” was more than just sixties jargon, writes Lemann. It defined Earth Day as educational, school-based, widely distributed, locally controlled, and participatory. This is contrasted with Earth Day 1990 which was better funded and more elaborately orchestrated but had fewer lasting effects. Earth Day 1990 was more top-down and attuned to marketing than to organizing.

The more the US environmental movement becomes an established presence in Washington, the less it has been able to win legislative victories, notes Lemann. “It has concentrated on the inside game at the expense of broad-based organizing,” he writes, citing an example from his research for the Scholars Strategy Network. “The forces behind the climate change bill [in the US Congress] directed their money to the inside game in Washington and to messaging, rather than to organizing.”

Earth Day is now celebrated around the world, including Armenia (see poster from 2010 campaign). Yet the lessons from the US environmental movement should be of interest for Armenia’s nascent environmental movement, which organized mass protests against industrial air pollution in the late 1980s. Today’s movement is smaller, visibly younger, and focused around unsustainable mining with some attention to issues such as green spaces, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity.

Armenia’s environmental movement has not been able to organize at the national level or at the grassroots, so it faces serious challenges ahead in terms of effectiveness and growth. We hope Rome’s account will provide at least some useful advice about organizing a generation of environmental leaders.