Earth Day Blues

by Lee Altenberg

© 1990

Published in The Missing Link, Duke University, April 1990

The twentieth anniversary Earth Day in 1990 was a tragic squandering of opportunity, because it's dominant message was that to save the Earth means to stop pollution and preserve wilderness. These two issues — pollution and wilderness — will find support from the public as long as the U.S. is not in an economic crisis. But when the next global economic crisis hits, an emergency mentality will set in, and pollution and wilderness destruction will seem more tolerable if it can bring some immediate economic relief. Earth Day could have inoculated the people with a far more potent idea — that of sustainability — which an economic crisis would only strengthen, because such crises are in fact a part of the unsustainability of this industrial system. Unsustainability is the fundamental problem with civilization as it now operates. We are living in a fool's paradise.

The United States' oil reserves, both known and unknown, are estimated to last us another 30 years, provided we keep importing half of our oil. What are we going to do when it runs out? Our country has become hooked on the automobile by the new development model of sprawling suburbs, which emerged with cheap oil after World War II. Jobs, housing, and shopping are all so far from each other, and so hostile toward pedestrians, that you need a car to do anything. How will people function in these sprawls when the oil runs out?

We constantly hear that the dilemma we face is the tradeoff between our standard of living and the environment. Conventional environmentalists, and corporations and the government they control, both concur in this evaluation; that's why environmentalists have pursued moralistic arguments of the deep ecology school — that we have no right to such a high standard of living if it deprives other species of existence, and have pursued “technical fix arguments” — that we can preserve both our standards of living and the environment if we just come up with the right technology and divert resources from the military. These are the ideas that were circulating in the mass media for Earth Day 1990.

The tragedy is that the major idea to develop in the 20 years since the first Earth Day, that of sustainability, was shut out of the discourse. Earth Day was the best opportunity we will have for years to put this idea on the front burner of people’s thinking about where our society is going, and the organizers were too trapped in conventional environmental thinking to emphasize this. Pollution and standard of living can be traded off. Sustainability cannot be traded off — the civilization continues to function in the future or it does not. There are no alibis, no compromises with the physical unsustainability of the current system. We are addicted to the destruction of our soils, our energy sources, our climate, and the fruits of the last 65 million years of evolution, and this pattern will bring itself to an end, either through our deliberate transition to sustainable ways of growing food and making things work, or through the death throws of the entire system that will make the fall of every other empire in history look like a tea party.

Unsustainability comes from several sources — the most horrendous of them being exponential population growth. But in the industrialized countries, the most fundamental source of unsustainability is the delusory idea of infinite resources. Unfortunately, infinite resources are the premise of capitalist economics. Investors want a 10% return, this year, next year, every year, ad infinitum. What grows by 10% a year? Forests? Fisheries? Oil in the ground? Farmland? Capitalism requires every company to “grow or die”. That is also the creed of the cancer cell, growth regardless of the consequences. The capital market compels companies to invest not merely in profitable enterprises, but the most profitable. Many profitable factories in the U.S. have been closed because the capital could make more profit somewhere else. As was shown with Pacific Lumber, which once had a stake in its own future and had practiced sustainable forestry, the “free market” allowed a Wall Street financier to buy the company and commence to “liquidate its assets” — i.e. chop down all the trees — to pay of the debt of a leveraged buyout. Instant gratification and “Do it now” are the slogans of capitalism long before Haight-Ashbury.

Concern for the future is still a part of our cultural heritage, although consumerism and life as passive and dependent wage laborers has weakened it. It is in the community and in the family that concern for future generations has its strongest base. Pacific lumber was sustainable because it was rooted in a particular place and in a community which had a continuing existence. When its base of control was ripped out and relocated in Wall Street, these ties were cut, and its future was sold away.

Moralism will not work with capitalism; in destroying the planet it is doing just what comes naturally. To change the behavior of the system by government regulation will be a constant, costly battle; as soon as the social climate changes under economic duress, as it did with Reaganism, the guardians will be sent away, and the vandals of our planet will be again unleashed.

When businesses are owned by people who must live with the consequences — the workers, the consumers, the people who live in the area — sustainability is more likely to be the natural orientation of these businesses. That is the central economic thesis of the Greens. It is democracy, as a central cybernetic principle for the control of our civilization’s activities. But it is currently an un-discussable idea in conventional environmentalism. It is an idea that exists in the margins, but not in the Washington lobbying offices of the large established environmental organizations. If there is any truth in the idea, then it may eventually become relevant as the real breakdowns start to occur in the civilization. But the fact, that even during Earth Day, such matters were not discussible in the mass public sphere, bodes ill for the society’s ability to deal with the impending realities of global change.

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