It was the good old days of environmentalism. Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, burning rivers, exploding chemical plants, and contaminated neighborhoods. We knew who the bad guys were and the good guys just had to stop them. It was a crisis of immense importance and needed immediate response. Catastrophe was looming over us every day. The fate of the world and humanity hung in the balance.
We responded viscerally as individuals, and we protested, demonstrated and boycotted to get the message across. As a nation we passed a slew of environmental protection laws for air, water, chemicals and wastes supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. We created the EPA to implement the laws and began a massive cleanup of contaminated sites. We tried to eliminate any risk we could identify. Clean up was aimed at protecting 999,999 people out of a million from contracting cancer from exposure to contamination.
The cost was huge, and benefits were almost immediate. Los Angeles air could be safely breathed again, rivers and streams stopped being sewers, and industrial and domestic wastes were managed more responsibly. We protected fish, birds, animals, plants and sensitive lands. We saved whales and condors, tigers and snails, eagles and flowers. Heartrending stories and photos pulled in contributions to the causes, and groups flourished that were created to protect these things.
Nearly fifty years later, we’re still striving to keep the momentum. Imminent catastrophe looms still, and there are more creatures to save, lands to protect, and villains to attack.
Not Everything is a Red Alert
It troubles me, though, that too many activists can’t figure out the relative nature of the problems. There is plenty left to do, but maybe every issue doesn’t demand a strident response. Yes, I believe some remaining issues are huge and potentially catastrophic. And while black and white, good versus evil battles remain, most environmental issues reflect various shades of gray — not appropriate for the full-scale, die-on-your-sword tactics still used indiscriminately. Finer tools are now needed.
As we have made progress, the remaining issues have grown more delicate. There are more people interested in environmental issues today than fifty years ago. Schools routinely teach classes on environmental issues that fifty years ago were known by only a few technical specialists. With this increase in knowledge comes a greater diversity of issues to be addressed, and not all are earth-shattering crises.
That leads to competition among experienced activists for continuing public attention and funding to address the problems that a particular group considers most important. Advertisers have for years known how to get our attention with BIG LETTERS and bright colors and extreme claims. So now, these schemes are applied for particular environmental issues, often distorting the important message that should be conveyed.
The Forest for the Trees
The tragedy is that all the hyperbolic doom-saying and fear-mongering can distract from the very real and important current issues. Baby seals are cute; Orangutans are so ugly they are beautiful; Pandas are simply adorable. If your cause features a cute animal, money will pour in. But the cute animals aren’t necessarily where we should spend our efforts. The Endangered Species Act was originally designed to protect disappearing habitat, not individual creatures. Sometimes a mouse is just a mouse (apologies to Sigmund Freud). What’s important is saving the environment that created and allowed that mouse to thrive.
It is important to speak out and try to right and prevent wrongs. It’s a civic duty, a responsibility of our humanity. But how do we approach the chaotic jumble of issues as mature environmentalists?
We need to understand the overall ecologic systems that create and support natural habitats, so that we can know how to manage and protect them. And, frankly, with an ever increasing mass of humanity pressing down on our earth, we need that knowledge to better plan how we humans integrate into those systems. The goal of the 1972 Clean Water Act (signed by that radical environmentalist Richard Nixon) was to achieve swim-able, fish-able waters across the US. It didn’t focus on a salmon or shad, but on the habitat. We need to shift our focus to encompass the natural world, not just a tiny piece of it.
Today, we must understand nuance and interrelationships. We need to study and decipher the natural world to manage our place in it. We need science and logic along with love and fear. We need to have the maturity and patience to work on the problems and focus on the long term. As we approach the fifty-year mark of the movement, we must also mature – grow more sophisticated and effective in our very important work.
Ultimately, the water isn’t just for swimming or fishing, but for sustaining our very human lives.