Environmental movement is back and ready for a fight

Here’s the only really important thing to know about the first Earth Day: 20 million Americans participated — 1 in 10 of the population in 1970.

I have no doubt that they deployed clever arguments, wrote excellent op-ed pieces, and delivered superb speeches. But what mattered is that people showed up, and made clear their anger.

As night follows day, Washington then reacted. Richard Nixon, a leader so resolutely unenvironmental that he famously walked the beaches of California in his dress shoes, signed into law the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and pretty much all the other laws we now depend on. And as night follows day, those laws worked: suddenly our rivers weren’t catching fire, and you could see from one edge of our great cities to the other. An environmental movement had arisen, and triumphed. “If it had ‘environmental’ in the title, it passed Congress for the next five or 10 years,” one early campaigner told me. “We didn’t lose a case in federal court for a decade.”

But all that success lulled the environmental movement into thinking it had won forever. The insurgent organizations that formed around that early anger mellowed into inside-the-Beltway lobbying shops; aging baby boomers turned from in-the-streets environmentalists into write-a-check environmentalists. For a while it worked, but eventually corporate opposition got strong enough to change the balance of power. Classic case in point: Environmentalists on a federal level have been able to do essentially nothing about climate change for a quarter-century.

The battery that powered environmentalism — fully charged by that great outpouring on Earth Day 1970 — had gradually wound down. The power was gone.

But the good news this Earth Day is that the movement is back. In the last 18 months, we’ve seen a whole new look. It actually began earlier than that, as groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and a whole passel of local environmental justice groups waged powerful regional fights against coal mines and coal-fired power plants. But it went national when protests against the Keystone oil pipeline turned into the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years, causing enough consternation that the president has delayed action on the project for more than a year. The Keystone fight rages on — more than a million public comments have been filed with the State Department in the last few weeks alone — but there are now many other battles underway. On more than 300 college campuses, for instance, students are now pushing for fossil fuel divestment; the city of Seattle has already sold its fossil fuel stock. In the Northwest, activists are waging a so-far successful insurgency against proposed new coal ports; in Canada, Idle No More has turned aboriginal activists into the most effective opponents of the oil industry on the continent.

Some of the big national environmental groups are fully engaged with the new spirit. The Sierra Club, for instance, which helped coordinate much of the fight against coal-fired power plants, has gone even further in recent months, dropping a 120-year ban on civil disobedience. Others remain enmeshed in the insider mentality; the Environmental Defense Fund, in an amazing repudiation of its name, recently went into business with Shell and others to “certify” fracking wells. But what Washington hasn’t quite yet figured out is that the environmental movement is no longer at all synonymous with the handful of big green groups that senators and presidents are used to dealing with.

Instead, there’s an emerging “fossil fuel resistance,” recently profiled in Rolling Stone. It’s mostly led by grassroots groups, the frontline communities that have suffered the most from air pollution, refineries and global warming (climate change is expanding the frontlines quickly — pre-Sandy, Battery Park City or the Jersey Shore might not have thought of themselves as being on the danger list, but they clearly are). 

These groups, though firmly nonviolent, are fierce; and they’re also powerfully networked, able to connect with one another on large-scale projects (watch out in July for SummerHeat, two weeks of escalating demonstrations at fossil fuel targets across the country, designed to coincide with the statistically hottest weeks of the year). They’re willing to work on political campaigns — the current Senate primary in Massachusetts has turned into a referendum on Keystone — and they’ve got access to big donors and insiders, like California’s Tom Steyer. 

Politicians should take serious note. The environmental movement didn’t disappear forever — it’s back, and it’s pissed.

McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org, a global grassroots climate campaign.