Earth Days to come: Will Americans stay so happy about the environment?

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Spin the wheel for the planet. Photo: MaryAnn Wagner

What better place to celebrate Earth Day’s 45th birthday than Seattle, where Sen. Gaylord Nelson first broached the idea in a September 1969 speech? And where better than on a campus, where so much of the first Earth Day upwelling happened?

And so I pedaled (in the spirit, and because they were the only wheels at hand) over to the University of Washington's Red Square on Wednesday to see how Earth Day was faring in middle age. At first glance the vital signs weren’t encouraging. As many students seemed to be hurrying between classes or huddling over their mobiles as checking out the booths. A few grooved to the solid beat of the band San Juan, self-proclaimed “dawgs forever!”

Those who stopped congregated at the booths with the best freebies – notably Wilcox Farms’, which was frying free omelets. In the next booth, the young guy promoting an upcoming UW Sustainability Summit was the loneliest man on Red Square. He brightened at having someone to talk to, even if it was just me asking why no one was stopping. “I don’t have anything to give away,” he shrugged. “I probably should.”

Still, he said, this UW Earth Day was much better than last year’s. Then the festivities were consigned to the HUB lot, it rained, and “nobody came.” And sure enough, the spirit wasn’t lost. San Juan’s front man got a round of applause when he paused between songs to proclaim, “And don’t forget Earth Day! Plant a tree! Tear down a power plant!” Never mind that Washington has just one coal-fired plant to tear down, at Centralia, and it’s slated to stop burning coal by 2025.

Two campus offices had figured out how to combine free stuff, fun and message to good effect. Students lined up at the UW Recycling and Solid Waste booth to spin a fortune wheel and find out whether they’d have to answer a question on composting (“Name three things that go in the compost bin”), recycling, or “?” to win …  a reusable plastic cup.

The longest line of all formed at the UW Grounds booth, which gave away 3-inch red cedar sprouts. Each recipient received instructions, on paper and face-to-face, on how to plant, mulch and water their future 100-foot trees. Not exactly the thing for a dorm room or apartment, I said to two budding arborists waiting in line. “I live at home,” one replied. “I’ll take mine home to plant this weekend,” said the other.

Forget tree hugging, it’s time for tree planting! Earth Day lives – the kids are still alright. More right than ever, maybe, if you believe surveys showing they’re less interested in owning cars and big lawns than any previous generation sampled. There’s hope for the planet after all!

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Another Earth Day tree on its way to hit the dirt.

You might draw similar comfort from the way Gallup headlined its annual survey last year of American views on environmental and economic priorities: “Americans Again Pick Environment Over Economic Growth.” Dig into the numbers, however, and the news isn’t bracing for those who think the natural world is vulnerable and important.

Last year was the first time since the Great Recession of 2008-09 that a clear plurality of respondents think environmental protection should be a higher priority than economic growth. But it was a feeble plurality – 50 to 41 percent – compared to most previous years of the 30-year-old survey. In 1990, following eight years of Reaganite efforts to gut eco-rules and (more successfully) trash alternative-energy development, they favored environment over economic growth by a stunning 71 to 19 percent.

That gap began closing in 2000 and continued closing through the anxious years of the dot-gone crash, recession, 9-11 attacks and initial War on Terror. It began reopening during Bush’s second term, when the economy and hurricane seasons picked up steam but action on climate and carbon didn’t. It’s a familiar pattern: People feel freer to care about the environment when they’re less worried about their jobs and nest eggs and foreign threats.

One gap widened, however: the gap between Republican and Democratic views of the relative importance of growth and environmental protection. That gap was also widest in 2000, but nearly closed in 2010–11, when nearly as many Democrats as Republicans put growth first. In 2014, 66 percent of Democrats valued the environment more; only 27 percent of Republicans did.

That gap doubtless reflected general polarization in the body politic. But environmental, especially climate, ideology also drives the wedge. The gap between party loyalists’ views closed during and after the period when John McCain, an early Senate stalwart for climate action, became the GOP’s presidential stalwart. Now climate denialism is not only acceptable, it’s hardening into party orthodoxy. Not only wild and wooly Ted Cruz but Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and that nice young man Marco Rubio espouse or defer to it.

Another annual Gallup poll on views of the environment, released last month, bodes even worse for future Earth Days. It asked people to “rate the overall quality of the environment today – as excellent, good, only fair, or poor.” Fifty percent – the largest share in this poll’s 15 years – consider it excellent or good up from an all-time low of 39 percent in 2009, when Obama succeeded Bush as president. An all-time low of 40 percent this year deem it “only fair.” The share who think the environment is in poor shape, 9 percent, has held fairly constant, with one pop up in 2009.

As usual, a considerably larger share of Republicans (62 percent) than independents (48 percent) and Democrats (40 percent) think the environment’s in good shape. But all three cohorts take a rosier view this year.

This contrasts starkly with the past year’s actual environmental trends. The best ice science concluded that the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice packs has passed the point of return. The Arctic Ocean’s seasonal pack ice retreated faster and farther than ever. Forget 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon, the maximum level widely deemed feasible for avoiding catastrophic climate change and the battle cry of the movement. We’ve now passed 400. The latest WWF Living Planet Index, which crunches population data on thousands of species, finds that the earth’s vertebrate population has fallen 52 percent since 1970. That’s the number of individual mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, not the number of surviving species. But population decline and isolation is the road to extinction. And to the Sixth Great Extinction.

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Going, going... Ice at Tasiilaq, Greenland.

So why are Americans more complacent now? In a recent piece for Slate High Country News, writer Krista Langlois nicely parses the disjuncture between popular perceptions and reality, and the dilemma this poses for environmental journalists. As she and Gallup note, it reflects who’s in charge: People figure Obama’s getting done what needs to be done, because he actually wants to.

It also reflects a familiar parochialism: Whatever may be ravaging distant tropical and mountain forests, the most visible forests are growing back around America’s cities and Eastern ex-farmlands. A few conspicuous, protected megaspecies – wolves, bison, grizzlies, cougars – are expanding, while their counterparts in the tropics and Arctic and even along our shores decline or disappear. We’re recycling more water bottles, even as world water resources shrink and grow foul. Environmental change is global, but perception, like politics, is local.

Complacency may make for some more rosy Earth Days. But they won’t last forever.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.