Sorry I’m a day late.
Earth Day, as it’s now celebrated, is wrapped in a kind of sentimentality. We’re made to think about the Earth, about animals, about nature, about polar bears. Don’t get me wrong — the experience of nature is important to our psychological well-being, as artists and poets have known since time immemorial; animals, plants, landscapes, and waterscapes, are obviously a part of the ecosystem that supports us. I hike. I forest-bathe. I tree-hug (mentally).
But the first Earth Day, some 50 years ago, was a signature display of public, political power. Some 20 million people responded to the call to protect our habitat. They were spurred on by photogenically hideous events like the Cuyahoga River (an oil slick, actually) catching on fire; deadly smog in big cities like New York and Los Angeles; and countless examples of local industries destroying their environs with endless downstream repercussions — a cost in human bodies, a death toll.
Congress, and indeed our national discourse, was less thoroughly corrupt than it is now — or perhaps, it was corrupt in different ways. But consensus was still possible; the government could still plainly do Big Things. And President Nixon was plugged in, having created the Environmental Quality Council in 1969; by late 1969 Congress had passed the National Environmental Council Act; by December 1970, the EPA was up and running. It had broad powers to protect the public health via environmental protection. Power was being flexed. And the public good won.
It is important to put ourselves in historical context. We shouldn’t romanticize the era of Vietnam and Watergate; and yet there has been a degradation of our democracy since then. We have endured a steady attack on institutions that protect the public good versus the predations of private greed. Plutocracy, the cult of money, has morphed into a powerful political movement.
First the media was targeted for “liberal bias”, for daring report facts that didn’t flatter plutocratic ambitions. Media consolidation has allowed a few highly-ideological players (Sinclair) to promote right-wing propaganda on the public airwaves. A right-wing media industry takes its agenda from the plutocracy, seasons it with white-people identity politics (racism), and passes it on in the form of grievance at “big government”. We’ve seen the evisceration of campaign finance laws, opening the way for moneyed polluters like the Kochs to poison public discourse with disinformation and “alternative facts”. Money has been spent at a vast scale; and it has been effective.
The EPA was targeted by the plutocracy rather early on. The “Reagan Revolution” marked a turning point away from the idea that government should safeguard public safety from private greed. Remember that the first egregious attacks on the integrity of the EPA were carried out in 1981-82 by President Reagan’s appointee Anne Gorsuch (yes, the mother of Neil). She nearly succeeded in gutting the agency; and yet her scandals have been long since surpassed by Trump’s designated saboteurs, Scott Pruitt and the less-colorful but even more dangerous ex-coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.
The health of our democracy and the health of our ecosystem is very much intertwined. Our very flesh and blood, and especially that of our children, are on the line. Pollution kills people dead, in vast quantities. In our current pandemic, death tolls from COVID-19 are linked to exposure to pollutants, small particulates (PM 2.5) that get into the lungs and debilitate the very ability to breathe.
And like our democracy, our habitat is becoming unrecognizably crippled, perverted, and repurposed. I am reminded of the chant of the 1980s AIDS activists, protesting on Wall Street: “WE DIE, THEY MAKE MONEY”.
To preserve what is left of our home and our future, we must be as focused as our opponents on getting and using power. Since the fossil fuel industry has set itself against our very existence, I am not ashamed to repurpose a Reagan line: “We Win, They Lose.”
How? We go with the maxim, Necessary but not sufficient. None of the following are themselves game-changers, none are enough. But if we are to substantially cut emissions in the next nine years, as the IPCC says is necessary, we have to do all the things.
Elect Democrats. The Republican Party has thrown in its lot 100% with those who would destroy the world. It has become a death cult, incorrigibly set on destruction. I wish that were not the case; I wish there were Republicans that could be persuaded, but the thick fog of denialist propaganda seems to have enveloped the entire party. It seems that first — and not later — Republicans must be defeated at every level. Only then, and maybe not even, will they change their minds. Joe Biden is not my idea of a climate hero, and sadly gives little inclination he’s up for a big fight. And yet, his climate plan is far more ambitious than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016; and he is in dialogue with Bernie Sanders and Jay Inslee. No such dialogue can exist with Donald Trump nor Mitch McConnell. Elections matter.
David Roberts points to the very obvious correlation between electing Democratic trifectas and bold state action on climate: Colorado, California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maine — and now Virginia. State and local efforts matter: They bubble up, and set the expectation that people are ready for more comprehensive action, making it politically safer because after adaptation, those measure are practically less disruptive.
Even in Massachusetts, a third term for Governor Baker would mean sluggish and reluctant action on reducing emissions. He talks a good game; he is laudably trying to piece together the Transportation and Climate Initiative. But he takes with one hand what he gives with the other: He continues to support gas pipelines and glacial timeframes on MBTA improvement. We should well expect a Governor Maura Healey (say), already a climate hero, to act with more fire, more swiftness, more urgency.
Elect better Democrats. On the local level that means electing candidates to the Massachusetts House and Senate who explicitly run on climate action; and who in their collective numbers can put the issue front and center to leadership. There is already a fresh wave of new climate-hawk representatives: Maria Robinson, Lindsay Sabadosa; Tami Gouveia; Nika Elugardo; our own Tommy Vitolo; and others. We need reinforcements: BMGer Steve Owens is running for State Rep on a Green New Deal platform.
With the disruption in the legislative calendar, not to mention the attentions of legislators, we’ll have to see what the House can manage. Again, the Senate already passed a pretty-OK climate bill — still marred by the absence of a 100% renewables requirement by 2040.
“Elect better Democrats” also means …
Re-elect Ed Markey to the Senate. There is quite simply no one like him on climate: The author of the Green New Deal; the Little Red Hen of the 2009 Waxman/Markey cap-and-trade bill, which passed the House, and a climate hawk going back decades. Back when we were successfully tackling acid rain in the late 1980’s, Ed Markey was saying, let’s handle carbon emissions too. He was right.
Joe Kennedy III likes to take credit for co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, but one doesn’t show support by primarying the guy who wrote it. If Kennedy wins, the message is sent, and it will croak momentum for comprehensive climate action. Kennedy saw an election year with Donald Trump on the ballot, and decided it was a good opportunity to advance his own career — dividing our attention, energies, and money in the process. This is naked ambition, and it grates.
On the other hand, returning Ed Markey to the Senate — defeating a Kennedy, in Massachusetts — will be a show of power for the climate movement. It is necessary.
Move in, and move up. We must ourselves move into places of leverage and power. We create a new normal, a new default set of assumptions about how things should work in local institutions, having them reflect strong climate commitments. That means running for office, if we’re not getting the kind of leadership we need. It means getting on Town Meetings and School Boards and Zoning Boards and whomever else will take us.
Even if we think our local institutions are run by “good people” in “progressive places”, they will de-prioritize climate because they can, because the rest of the fossil-fueled way of life makes it easy to rationalize. (For example, the Arlington High School building committee, faced with a budget overrun, removed geothermal wells and a spur to the Minuteman Bike Path. These things seemed extra, rather than fundamental to the well-being of the very children that will study there.) We need to make sustainable choices normal, common sense — the default.
The power of example. Yes indeed, climate action will require changes in our lives. People often don’t act on their beliefs; they believe in their actions.
There’s a feedback loop between how people live, and the kinds of policies they favor. I was fortunate to get to live near a bike path, so I bike. The path made me its constituent. And so I advocate for both my path and an expanded network of bike paths.
As with the relationship between state and federal action, change is easier when it begins at home, and is reinforced by public policy decisions. People’s actions create proof-of-concept: You can bike to work. Subways and trains are a thing. You can run your home and your car on sunshine. You can use a heat pump to heat and cool your home. You can eat less meat, or none. Government (and corporate) policy can make these choices no-brainers, instead of eccentricities. The Green New Deal is an alternative future, by no means a hellscape. But it does envision certain changes in how we live.
The power of no. The power of over my dead body, of hell no. The power of those opposing the Weymouth Compressor; those sprawling across the train tracks preventing a coal train from reaching New Hampshire; those at Standing Rock; at West Roxbury; those who make ear-splitting noise in the echoing marble halls of the State House; those who may think of themselves as warm bodies, but who show up to Climate Strikes; those who march, who stand, who sit; who don’t take evasions and brush-offs from their elected officials; those who are a pain in the ass; who won’t take yes for answer. Yes this matters — getting around protests is slow, and time is money, which affects corporate estimates of return-on-investment. Protests and gatherings are advertising. Again, no isn’t sufficient, but it sure is necessary.
The fossil fuel industry is in dire straits; they know they can’t win on the merits of the public good, nor is their business model viable, QED. Is this their last chance? They can get what they want from the Trump administration — and they are not wasting this crisis — but what about next year?
We need to inoculate ourselves to any conversation that deals too purely in fantasies of high principle or dream policies, absent a plan to wrest power away from those who are leading us to global destruction. Fight the power. Better yet, take power.