What Has Changed In Environmentalism? Nothing and Everything

Take it from a kid raised in the 1960s: ‘green’ is complicated, more now than ever.

Just to use my personal starting point, the 1960s were easy. In those days, we like to think, we invented recycling. For the simple chores of collecting aluminum cans, paper and glass in our school, we saved a far-off landscapes from strip mining and some trees from being cut. When we saved glass, we were contributing to highway construction – and that meant less local mining for gravel, or so we thought.

Conservation required less academic understanding back then. Sure, there were complicated life cycles and biological interactions to understand, but a basic understanding of the food chain got you by. There were huge numbers of small insects or acres of grass or plankton and these were eaten by larger, more sophisticated species until you worked up the food chain from grass to human beings or from shrimp to great, white sharks. In general, there were less of the big guys and more of the small fries, making preservation a crisis in reverse; saving whales, elephants, and Bengal tigers was more urgent than saving mosquitoes.

What Has Changed In Environmentalism

Then, a NY Times post taught everyone the opposite: poisons build in concentration as they move up the food chain, so if you mess with mosquitoes or grass or water, everyone gets a dose of toxicity, from ferns to polar bears to your kids.

The most complicated college course I ever took – forget Sigmund Freud or Russian literature – was a general ecology course, entry level.

It turns out whatever you touch does have consequences.

Things are different now. The Ecology Club in my high school was a way to change a linear mindset to a holistic, cyclical one. We felt life went round and round. The Vietnam War looked like repeat business to us. We felt biology was also a network of connections between competing lifecycles that had found a graceful balance in millions of battles throughout history between predator and prey.

Forty years later, nothing and everything has changed.

Understanding ecology has intensified to a level unimagined when I was young. What was connected to the polar bear then is lethal to the polar bear now. The preservation of endangered species now includes spiders and songbirds; they are one and the same at this point. Following the adage that the price of real estate always goes up, habitat space has slipped through our fingers over the past decades and now appears hopelessly out of reach, the competition for resources too great. Tigers need food, that’s true. But they also need a place to hunt and play.

The best thing about global warming is not the chance of Club Med moving to Maine. But because it affects every nation on Earth, the pressure to confront the problem has been global. It has the dimensions of a science fiction movie, when the hero-scientist goes into shock staring at an expanding stain on a computerized globe.

It also has such far reaching implications that business groups are scared. And scaring businesses is a good political tactic in this country. Scare the money people and the politicians will pay attention.

Let’s touch down a little bit here. Just as the world “has gotten a little larger in the window,” to quote Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, the focus has changed from distant and diffuse to here and now. How do you balance out a building project environmental remediation? How do you get a project into code? Why do you have to build a building that might last 50 years with the structural strength to survive a 100-year event?

From municipalities to businesses to schools, even those with impeccable intentions face daunting regulations just to build a parking lot.

The difference between 1960 and 2014 is that now it is nearly impossible to swing a dead cat without hitting an environmental regulation, because “environmental impact” is a wide-open concept based on interconnected ecosystems. Wind turbines are opposed successfully, because they are noisemakers or because they will disrupt bird migration. Doing right seems nearly impossible these days.

Yes, profit and a clean planet are in competition and there is no Supreme Court of Ecological Concerns, no one arbitrator who weighs the value of an endangered salamander with, for example, a solar energy panel factory. Frankly, these battles are not fought in court most of the time. The majority of cases are heard in zoning board meetings and town board meetings with firms squaring off with builders of cell phone towers or shopping malls. Sometimes, the cases do end up in court, where firms like Andersen Environmental act as expert witnesses in order to educate the lawyers, validate previous environmental studies, and evaluate compliance with regulations.

In this country, a new invention comes down in price after some time has gone by, because competition begins to make inroads and demand diminishes. That doesn’t work with solar panels. They are expensive and the investment takes years to break even and the over-crowded Northeast corridor is cloudy much of the time.

These broad strokes of environmental blather are brought to you by the number 6.916 billion (people), the letters E(arth) and R(ecycle) and by the colors green and blue.