Earth Daze: What Happened to the Environmental Movement?

Forty-three years ago, more than 20 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. Today, the number is a bit less. Has the modern environmental movement lost its way?

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A poster from the first Earth Day in 1970

It’s Earth Day, though you could be forgiven if you missed it. The annual event doesn’t quite have the same energy as it once did — especially not compared with the first Earth Day 43 years ago. That nationwide event, initially inspired by the work of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, was celebrated by more than 20 million people in more than 12,000 events around the country. As Nicholas Lemann pointed out in a recent piece in the New Yorker, Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members — Democrat and Republican alike — spoke at Earth Day events. The Today show devoted 10 hours of airtime to Earth Day. And that mobilization — which was decentralized, mostly achieved through a tiny national office — paved the way for real government action: the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This year’s Earth Day was a little less memorable, and a whole lot less bipartisan. (I can’t imagine a Republican member of Congress giving a speech during Earth Day now unless they were calling for the dismantling of the EPA.) And it comes during a moment of crisis for the environmental movement as it attempts to grapple, so far unsuccessfully, with the existential threat of climate change. Back to Lemann:

Then, 40 years after Earth Day, in the summer of 2010, the environmental movement suffered a humiliating defeat as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, announced that he would not bring to a vote a bill meant to address the greatest environmental problem of our time — global warming. The movement had poured years of effort into the bill, which involved a complicated system for limiting carbon emissions. Now it was dead, and there has been no significant environmental legislation since. Indeed, one could argue that there has been no major environmental legislation since 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed a bill aimed at reducing acid rain. Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?

Forty-three years after the first Earth Day, are Lemann and other critics of the modern environmental movement right? Have greens lost their way — and if so, why?

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There’s no getting around the fact that environmentalists have failed to push through a legislative solution to climate change. Cap and trade, even under a Democratic Congress and President, failed in 2010. The international climate regime under the U.N. seems to get closer to collapse every year, and even in much greener Europe, carbon markets simply aren’t working. And environmentalism as a concept doesn’t seem to resonate with Americans as it once did. A new YouGov/HuffPost poll found that Americans are less concerned about the environment now than they were on the first Earth Day. While isolated issues like fracking and the Keystone pipeline resonate strongly with some Americans, especially those who are directly affected — witness the mobbed hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline last week and the stream of antifracking protests — there’s nothing close to the sheer number of Americans who were motivated to take part in the first Earth Day.

What’s changed? You can blame the specific failure of cap-and-trade legislation in part on the mechanics of the U.S. Senate — the bill passed the House, barely — where rural conservative states get outsize representation and where legislation now needs to get 60 votes to pass. (Though of course health care reform still managed to pass despite those same obstacles.) The growing political polarization that has made environmentalism almost solely a Democratic cause can’t be blamed only on greens. But I think the biggest reason is that environmentalism has been a victim of its own success. The environment — everyone’s environment — really was a mess in 1970. Urban rivers were on fire, smog choked the Los Angeles basin, toxic waste affected towns like Love Canal and shorelines were marred by industrial runoff. See this Slate roundup of once polluted or threatened sites in America that have been saved by the environmental movement over the past four decades. Things used to be very, very bad.

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And now? The air and water in most of America is much cleaner than it was during the first Earth Day. We have an Environmental Protection Agency to, well, protect the environment, even if it can’t always do the job. The most immediate threats have retreated, and as Michael Kazin points out in the New Republic, that fact alone has hurt environmentalism as an active and broad-based political cause:

Not much has changed since then. However, the most salient reason for the waning of the greens may be rather simple: American voters do not view climate change, unlike issues on which environmentalists won in the past, as an immediate threat to either their health or their wealth. Hurricanes may be stronger, summers hotter and droughts longer than ever. But unless you’re a climate scientist or follow their research closely, it’s difficult to know for sure whether these phenomena signal the beginning of a historic calamity or are merely events on a cyclical pattern. At any rate, supermarkets offer an ever increasing variety of foods at fairly stable prices, while Mardi Gras was celebrated on schedule in New Orleans not long after Katrina blew through. Most coverage of climate change traffics heavily in words like could and potentially. It’s hard to build a world-saving movement on that.

That rings true to me. Environmentalists still have success when the issues they take on are direct and local — see the furor over fracking, or the growth of organic food and BPA-free materials. But no matter what the scientific papers and headlines say, climate change still feels distant to most Americans — important, but still distant. One-off events like Superstorm Sandy can and do move the needle — but not enough, yet, to make climate change a front-and-center issue for most Americans. We’re pretty good at paying attention to the here and now, and really bad at planning for the future — half of us aren’t even saving for our own retirement. Building a nationwide coalition around a problem of the future is like trying to grasp fog.

So maybe we should stop comparisons with the first Earth Day. We may never see 20 million Americans demonstrate over the environment — unless, I suppose, things get much, much worse. And there’s great progress that has been made outside traditional movement politics — look at the way businesses large and small have embraced sustainability in a manner that would have been unimaginable some 40 years ago. But it’s going to take more than that, and it will take more than just greens. Climate change is too big — and too important — to be left to the environmentalists alone.

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Early 70's, I remember they call it global cooling.


For the Love of Mother Earth, start thinking about "Ancient Geo Engineering"......Like hello is everyone on this planet stupid enough to believe that the Pyramids are TOMBS?
Like Hello one more time for possible penetration into the dense minds of Earthlings The pyramids on the Giza plateau control the Hawaiian hot spot. Now why would a bunch of Highly advanced intelligent beings want to control a Volcano.? anyone.? yes you in the back.! what’s that you say? Thats correct....! did you hear that people.? Your not as stupid as you look down here after all. The semi bright human in the back said to control temperatures by controlling ASH discharge into the atmosphere. Very Good..Grass hopper! And how do we do this with Giza Plateau Pyramids on the approximate same latitude of the Hawaiian Hot Spot on the other side of the planet...? yes, yes, spit it out son! By gravity control..! very good, my son, very good, by gravity control, Now how do you disable a pyramid that was set up to control the temperatures on Earth? right again you open them up and turn them into amusement parks, And how do we place the pyramids back on line? yes, yes, Right again! We repair the damage CRAZY humans did to the Earths thermostats i.e. the Great Pyramids of Giza the book "Pyramid Gravity Force" the only answer to CLIMATE CHANGE!!!!!!!

InterconGreen 1 Like


I think a lot of this is on point. The environmental movement has lost some of its luster, allowing it to fade into the background of American minds. I think we've arrived at this point for two reasons. 

The first definitely has to do with climate change. You're right that climate change is a difficult sell to Americans as a long term problem in a culture focused on short term problems. For me though, a bigger question is why has the environmental lobby chosen climate change as its poster child in the first place? Maybe instead we should be striving for a campaign of sustainability rather than just fighting climate change. 

Yes, climate change is the largest environmental problem that we're currently faced with, but there are many things we can do that fall under the umbrella of sustainability--cleaner water, cleaner air, increased energy efficiency, less chemical pollution, natural foods, water conservation, etc. A lot of these things are issues that resonate with Americans because they are front and center. At the same time, fixing these things probably also has a positive effect on CO2. 

The second part of this is that environmentalists have become so frustrated that such a big issue is being ignored that they try to underscore issue with how bad things could possibly get. While not necessarily disingenuous, it comes off as scare tactics that keep growing in severity the more they are ignored--which only creates just as many enemies as friends. 

The lobby needs to steer its ship in a different direction and find a message that more people can understand. 



IMO "Climate change" is down at the bottom of the list in terms of stuff that should keep us up at night.  We have WMDs of every variety, the honeybee die-off (they are small but kinda important), total economic collapse when the debt-tsunami hits - to name just a few.   If you think we are all going to last 40 or 50 years to "maybe" see the sea-level rise 2 centimeters I would argue that you are not looking at the situation objectively.  The good news - there is a god . . . and he is in control.


means that men are far too inferior to the Creator


"We may never see 20 million Americans demonstrate over the environment — unless, I suppose, things get much, much worse."

Things are getting much worse.

fgoodwin 1 Like

Friday, April 25 is Arbor Day.  Plant a tree and actually DO something positive for the environment.  All the enviros carrying posters on Earth Day did nothing but tie up traffic.

bryanfred1 1 Like

I think many people also recognize that even passing cap and trade, or implimenting the Kyoto protocols, is expecteed to have an immaterial impact on global warming by incurring substantial cost (mostly to the U.S. - China and India get passes as "developing" nations).  From what I recall the effect of Kyoto would be a reduction of 0.1 - 0.2 degrees, 50 years from now.  That's not exactly a motivation for major economic sacrifice; the cost doesn't justify the outcome.


If you take a look specifically at the US; yes, the environment has improved.  However, most of that is due to our shutting down polluting factories and buying those goods from factories that pollute worse than the ones shut down.  We have successfully exported our pollution.  People are proud that our coal usage has decreased, but our coal exports are growing dramatically.  Eventually the US enviroment will be impacted by this outsourcing by climate change. 

In the end however, the Environmental Movement has died because if you asked a hundred people if they had to choose between economic growth or leaving a livable planet to their grandchildren, ninety people would choose economic growth.


What y'all need is a good song to rally the troops. Here's a brand-spanking-new American anthem designed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few new ones over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Sing it loud. Scream your anger.


As someone who went to college to study the environment (mostly botany, geology, ecology, etc) the power of Earth Day’s message was powerful for me back then, but has continually drawn down to a quiet murmur in the 2010′s.

I would submit that “the environment” as a topic competes on a much broader front these days. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the web in general all vie for our attention with a unbelievably fierce effectiveness… "who’s got time for environmental interest/advocacy with all those cute cat videos!”

Also, more importantly, environmentalism has become a highly politicized topic. Thanks to the work of polarizing politicians like Al Gore, the topic of the environment is far less about the air/water/earth that we share than it is about Left vs. Right… and if you've ever talked politics with anyone then maybe you’ll recall how immovable people can become. Combine that level of polarization with the incessant drumbeat of “you’re a big fat failure” message espoused by the Climate Changers and you can see why people indulge in their Cat Video subscriptions on Reddit.

My opinion would seem to be in contrast to the posits above: "blame the specific failure of cap-and-trade legislation" and "American voters do not view climate change... as an immediate threat."  I can honestly say that i don't agree with these points.  There's enough people out there who are well aware of the changes in their normal climates, dwindling glacier fields and person to person chatter to keep the topic near the top of social consciousness.