Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day 40 years later: Some things never change!

Today is the 40th anniversary of the original Earth Day. The milestone was part of an interesting show that aired this week, “Earth Days,” on PBS’s The American Experience:

The show was a vivid reminder of how little has changed in many respects during the past 40 years. Partisan politics rather than science and common sense still dictate decisions about environmental protection. Powerful lobbies for the chemical and utility industries still call the shots. And environmentalists are still schizophrenic about whether they should work for within the system for incremental change, or from outside the system for revolutionary shifts.

None of this is news to my colleagues in the Michigan environmental movement.

When it is simply a matter of money and power – who can hire the best lobbying firms and who has the capacity to funnel the most money into legislators’ campaign coffers – we lose. The big boys on the block are the same as they have been for a long time: The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the electric utilities, and the big corporations.

Fortunately, one other thing hasn’t changed in 40 years: The collective power of people is the one certain force than can defeat the lobbying goliaths. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist, but he proclaimed the first Earth Day and signed the Clean Air Act in response to a groundswell of public support. In Michigan, public sentiment in favor of clean energy choices was a key factor in many legislators’ reluctant votes to pass Michigan’s first renewable energy requirements in 2008. And just last week, mercurial Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson backpedaled on his legal challenge to Michigan’s smoking ban law – after only a few hours and more than 100 made constituent calls and e-mails!

The trouble is, most people don’t demand that kind of change unless they sense impending doom or some sense of desperate urgency. For example, the anti-war youth of the 1960s; the environmentalists of the 1970s; or even the Tea Party activists of 2010 (jury still out on this one).

So maybe our Earth Day resolution shouldn’t be riding bikes or changing light bulbs or recycling. Maybe it should be demanding something of our elected officials each week. One phone call or personal letter (not an e-mail) specifically asking them to support a piece of legislation or vote some bad bill into oblivion.

If you need ideas, subscribe to the Michigan Environmental Council's Capitol Update or check out the organizations on the “Place of Interest” on the right hand side of this page. Many of them have multiple options to keep you abreast of current issues.


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