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From Earth Day to Ecological Society

The 1960s was a unique period of dramatic social change in the United States and elsewhere. Black, brown, women’s, student, and gay liberation movements militated for rights, equality, and democracy. A massive anti-war movement rejected the government’s pogrom against the people of Vietnam as the counter-culture and New Left challenged capitalism, social hierarchy, conformism, the work ethic, and the materialism of a soulless society.

With books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), there was also growing awareness of environment issues such as air and water pollution, nuclear radiation, and chemical poisoning. Initially, the emerging environment movement was not welcomed by many in the social movement camp because they saw it as elitist and as a distraction from war and social injustice issues.

By the mid 1970s, however, the civil rights and anti-war movements were losing momentum as the environmental movement was gaining ground. There was wider recognition of the urgency of environmental issues and their connection to social justice concerns, and new attention was paid to problems such as “environmental racism.”

The modern environmental movement had its official beginning on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Ironically, the concept behind Earth Day belonged to republican congressman Gaylord Nelson who obtained federal funding for a few college students to organize the event. The country was ready to embrace the new cause: from coast-to-coast, 20 million people marched, demonstrated, and participated in teach-ins about environmental problems.

The 1970s became the "decade of environmental legislation." Congress passed twenty eight major statutes protecting the nation’s air, water, and wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency was created by executive order. The field of environmental law exploded as citizens exercised new powers to prosecute corporate polluters. Large environmental organizations emerged and set up shop in Washington to become professional lobbying forces.

Although corporations have since exploited Earth Day to peddle greenwashing propaganda, the occasion also has become an important platform to promote education and change. More than three decades since the first Earth Day, there is greater public awareness about the environment and thousands of national and grass roots environmental groups exist. But we have to ask the hard question: For all the struggles, education, and legislative changes, are we better or worse off today than in 1970?

The Long Goodbye

The answer is shockingly clear. Since April 22, 1970, there is more population growth, consumerism, cars and highways, pollution, clear-cutting, desertification, habitat loss, and species extinction, in addition to the new threat of global warming. Consider a few facts:

* Human beings are adding to their current population of over 6 billion at the rate of 100 million new people a year

* Human consumption levels currently exceed the planet’s regenerative capacity by 20 percent

* Industries have chopped down half of the world’s rainforests, destroyed a quarter of shallow coral reefs, and depleted or overfished 70% of the major fisheries

* The average surface temperature of the planet may rise by as much as ten degrees Celsius within a century, killing massive numbers through heat and disease

* In a warming world, ice is rapidly melting in the Polar Regions, Greenland, and mountain and alpine glaciers, destroying habitat collapse for artic animals and creating millions of environmental refugees through rising sea levels

*We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction crisis. Unlike past extinction events, the current one is caused not by natural phenomena such as meteor strikes but rather by human actions such as habitat destruction. Human-induced changes are driving species extinction at 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the natural rate that prevailed since the demise of the dinosaurs. Conservation biologists predict that by the middle of the century, one third to one half of all existing plant and animal species may become extinct. Currently, 5,500 animal species are threatened with extinction, including the Great Apes, the Florida panther, the panda bear, the gray wolf, the California condor, and the black rhino.

Overpopulation, species extinction, habitat devastation, deforestation, desertification, global warming, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, foot and mouth disease, SARS, Asian bird flu, genetic mutations in frogs and other animals, and hormone disruption in human beings are major indicators that human society is out of joint with the natural order and has embarked on a mad, unsustainable path of existence.

At a time when the nation needs aggressive action to protect the earth, we instead have the most anti-environmental president in our history. Seeking to complete the reactionary process corporate America, Ronald Reagan, and Bush Sr. started after the setback of the 1970s, Bush’s goal is to roll back the environmental gains of the past three decades. To date, he has initiated over two hundred reversals of hard-won environmental laws. The Bush administration – dominated by corporate executives and lobbyists -- has slapped a “fire sale” sign on the planet and is mortgaging wilderness and biodiversity to its friends and colleagues in the timber, gas, oil, chemical, and agricultural industries.

Among other regressive acts, Bush has removed Clean Air Act restrictions on coal-burning power plants, lifted constraints on logging forests, ordered the EPA to halt investigations of factory farm water pollution, and aggressively pursued oil drilling plans in sensitive areas such as Padre Island National Seashore and the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Defying 178 participating countries, Bush rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that requires industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions on the grounds that it would be too costly to the American economy. Bush masks his ecocidal programs with Orwellian rhetoric such as “Healthy Forests Initiative” and “Clear Skies” program.

As Robert F. Kennedy spells out in his brilliant expose, “Crimes Against Nature,” the Bush’s administration installs corporate pirates in cabinet positions relevant to their industry agenda, solicits junk science to quiet public fears over issues such as global warming, rewrites government research to suit industry purposes, suppresses reports warning of environmental hazards and problems, and even disbands scientific advisory committees when necessary to advance corporate interests.

Crisis Culture

Homo sapiens have embarked on an insane, destructive, and unsustainable path of existence. The human species is driving off a cliff at 100 miles an hour without brakes, and yet people live is if the most urgent issue of the day is Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” or who will win American Idol.

There is much talk about “national security” but nothing is said about the basis of all security – environmental security. Problems like global warming, desertification, and food and water shortages will wreak havoc throughout the planet.

As Homeland Security turns ever-more fascist, environmentalists are vilified as eco-terrorists and legal forms of activism are criminalized under the Patriot Act. While Ashcroft prosecutes activists working to help the planet, corporate eco-terrorists continue to pillage and plunder. Meanwhile, Americans, who make up less than 5% of the world’s population, consume 30% of its resources and produce 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever forces striving to save the environment are doing, it is not to ward off corporate and state Pac-men greedily devouring the planet. National environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club are tepid, compromise-based, reform-oriented bureaucracies unable to challenge corporate and state power, and grass-roots forces are not great enough in force and numbers.

We are in the midst of a major ecological crisis that stems from a social crisis rooted in corporate power and erosion of democracy. In Greek, the word “crisis” means decision, suggesting that humanity, currently poised at a critical crossroads in its evolution, has crucial decisions and choices to make concerning its existence on the planet. Human identity, values, ethics, worldviews, and mode of social organization need major rethinking and reconstruction. In Chinese, “crisis” means both calamity and opportunity. In a diseased individual, cancer often provides the catalyst for personal growth. As a diseased species, human beings can perish, survive in dystopian futures prefigured by films like Mad Max and Waterworld, or seize their opportunity to learn from egregious errors and rise to far higher levels of social and moral evolution.

The Human Plague

The crisis in human existence is dramatically reflected in the 1996 film, Independence Day. The movie is about hostile aliens with no respect for life; they come to earth to kill its peoples, devour its natural resources, and then move onto other planets in a mad quest to find more fuel for their mega-machines and growth-oriented culture. The film is a veiled projection of our own destructive habits onto monstrous beings from another world. We are the aliens; we are the parasites who live off the death of other life forms; we are the captains of the mega-machines that are sustainable only through violence and ecological destruction. We do to the animals and the earth what the aliens do to human life -- the only difference is, we have no other planet to move on to, and no superheroes to save us.

We are trapped in a Dawn of the Dead living nightmare where armies of hideous corpses, people thought long dead and buried, walk again with a will to destroy us. The dead represent all the waste, pollution, and ecological debts accrued to our growth culture that we thought we could walk away from unscathed and never again face. But we are waking up to the fact that the “dead” are storming our neighborhoods, crashing through our doors and windows, and hell-bent on devouring us.

In his article entitled “A Plague of Human Proportions,” Mark Lynas frames the crisis this way: “Within the earth's biosphere, a single species has come to dominate virtually all living systems. For the past two centuries this species has been reproducing at bacterial levels, almost as an infectious plague envelops its host. Three hundred thousand new individuals are added to its numbers every day. Its population of bodies now exceeds by a hundred times the biomass of any large animal species that has ever existed on land since the beginning of geological time.

The species is us. Now numbering more than six billion souls, the human population has doubled since 1950. Nothing like this has happened before in the earth's history. Even the dinosaurs, which dominated for tens of millions of years, were thinly spread compared to the hairless primate Homo sapiens.”

Thus, a single biological type has wreaked havoc on the estimated ten million other species in habiting the planet. Lynas suggests that because Homo sapiens dominates the planet today as dinosaurs did one hundred million years ago, “We are entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene.” According to a March 2004 Earth Policy Institute report, “Humans have transformed nearly half of the planet's ice-free land areas, with serious effects on the rest of nature … Each year the earth's forest cover shrinks by 16 million hectares (40 million acres), with most of the loss occurring in tropical forests, where levels of biodiversity are high … A recent study of 173 species of mammals from around the world showed that their collective geographical ranges have been halved over the past several decades, signifying a loss of breeding and foraging area.”

While insipid ideologues like Tibor Machan still publish books such as Putting Humans First: Why we are Nature’s Favorite (2004), it is more accurate to see Homo sapiens as the invasive species and agent of mass extinction par excellence -- not “nature’s favorite” but rather nature’s bete noir.

Conceptual Imperialism

Human colonialism created its perfect vehicle in capitalism. Capitalism reinforces the Western instrumental prejudice by reducing all value to exchange value for profit. Capitalism provides many liberties and brings goodies to those with money. But it is a colonialist system that grows only through devouring human beings, cultures, species, and nature. Its logic is grow or die, accumulate and expand endlessly or implode and collapse.

The origin of the environmental crisis lies not directly in capitalism or modern sciences and technologies, but rather has deep roots in Western culture. In her provocative book, The Chalice & the Blade (1987), Riane Eisler traces the origins and effects of a monumental shift in human social organization that began seven thousand years ago. Eisler describes how a peaceful and egalitarian “partnership model” of social organization was gradually eclipsed by a violent and hierarchical “dominator model” imposed by nomadic bands onto the Neolithic cultures in the Near East. Jim Mason’s book, An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other (1993), traces the origins of such a “dominator model” further back to the demise of hunting and gathering cultures and the rise of agricultural society ten thousand years ago.

In his essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (1967), Lynn White grounds the roots of the ecological crisis in Christianity, but clearly the Judeo-Christian worldview – which White fails to note contains many positive views of our relation and responsibilities to nature – is a reflection of prior changes already in place that emphasize social hierarchy, human separation from nature and the will to power over the earth and its life forms. One finds unambiguous views of dominating nature in ancient Greece. As best elaborated by Aristotle, many Greeks believed there is a natural hierarchy where beings of lesser intelligence exist to serve those of greater intelligence. The same instrumental model that justified placing slaves and women beneath free Greek men situated animals below humans.

As a general principle, Greek, Roman, medieval, and modern philosophers avowed human supremacy over animals and the earth by virtue of God-like powers of language and reason. Beginning in the seventeenth century, modern science declared the world to be mere matter in motion, devoid of any living spirit or holistic complexity, reducible to mathematical laws subject to human manipulation. Key architects of the modern worldview such as Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon championed technical domination over nature and saw reverence for life as superstition and “a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of god" (Robert Boyle). Mother Earth became a machine as capitalist society began to engineer a factory civilization.

Through religion, philosophy, and science, individuals in Western culture have learned to objectify the natural world, to see it as devoid of value unless it is useful and transformed to suit human purposes. Culprits of this conceptual imperialism behold a cow and see steak, observe a tree and think timber. They speak of “wilderness” in ignorance that what they see as empty or useless is a complex ecosystem teeming with life and intricate biological relationships.

Consider the old philosophical riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? This is but a pseudo-riddle one can take seriously only through an impoverished human-centered perspective. For the animals surely the tree falls, and its drop has an impact on what is living within and around it.

A key part of moral evolution is recognizing value outside of oneself – as it relates to other individuals, cultures, species, and the natural world as a whole. Just as within patriarchal and racist cultures, individuals began to learn that women do not exist for men and blacks were not made to serve whites, so human beings must awaken to the realization that animals and the natural world have value and beauty for their own purposes that have nothing to do with human aims.

Faustian Fallacies

To build modern civilization, humans drained marshes, damned rivers, chopped down rainforests, and massacred billions of animals. In place of wilderness, they constructed vast empires of glass, steel, and concrete with no regard for ecology and harmonizing the social and natural worlds. In a mad pursuit of “development,” modernity reduced continents of wild grasslands to a few nature preserves, as biodiversity increasingly survives within the cages of zoos and frozen test tubes of DNA. Our conquest of nature -- our “progress” -- is measured by the number of skyscrapers, freeways, car dealers, fast food joints, and strip malls.

People think no “growth” means no progress, but the truth is just the opposite. “Growth” is the mantra of every politician, the mentality no bureaucrat dare question. In his 2004 State of the Union address, Bush denounced steroid use in athletes and attacked gay marriage but said nothing about mounting environment problems. Society ignores the fact that trumpeted increases in jobs, productivity, consumer confidence, home construction, and the Gross National Product come about only through ever-greater strain on ecological systems. As Mathis Wackernagel of the Sustainability Program of Redefining Progress puts it, “the human economy is liquidating the Earth’s natural capital.”

The human presence has grown so great that in a significant sense it has brought about what Bill McKribbin calls the “end of nature.” Now that the human species has altered the world’s climate, there is not a raindrop or breeze that is not somehow influenced or altered by its existence. And through the genetic revolution science has begun to refashion the genetic structure of plants, animals, and humans, mixing genes from any species at will in a “second genesis” and new alphabet soup of DNA. Faustian visionaries project immanent futures where science designs genetic ubermenschen and humanity shapes its own evolution through active choice. As in Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park, the new hubris will confront the debacle of unintended consequences and pay the price for its attempt to rewire billions of years of genetic programming in a rapid and reckless way.

To overcome the current ecological crisis our species must first recognize it as one. Much of humanity does not grasp the crisis as anything but a bump on the highway to technoutopia for two fundamental reasons. First, they have no intellectual understanding of ecological laws and processes and so cannot appreciate the misguided and destructive nature of the dominator paradigm. Human beings are accustomed to viewing the world as comprised of discrete parts they can manipulate and control without consequence. They fancy that the impact of their actions is partial, limited, and manageable. They presume the earth is a cornucopia of unlimited resources that can fuel endless growth. They fantasize that in a tug-of-war contest between economic imperatives (rapid growth for short-term gains) and ecological laws (long-term balance, harmony, and sustainability) they will emerge the victor. They are blithely unaware of the complexity of living relationships, the fragility of ecosystems, and the Dr. Strangelove nature of their technological existence.

But the problem goes deeper than what people know or do not know intellectually, involving the lack of emotional bonds to the earth and a paralysis of the will to act. For too many, nature is an abstraction whereas media worlds, virtual reality systems, entertainment spectacles, and commodity fantasies are far more real. Few people break out of their sterile technoprisons (or bitter poverty) to see dolphins swim, hear running streams and mountain winds, or smell carpets of wildflowers. Through mass production, mass consumption, compulsive labor, and repressive policies such as the Patriot Act, the US holds its citizens captive to fragmented and privatized existence, as the values, practices, and institutions of democracy continue their steep decline.

Honey, I Shrunk the Species

One reason for the downfall of countless past civilizations is that they destroyed the ecological basis of their social world. We are facing the same fate, making the same mistakes. Since the founding of the nation, US agriculture and industry has destroyed two thirds of its once rich topsoil. Without topsoil, food cannot grow and without food people cannot survive.

If the fundamental problem is that we are out of balance with our surroundings, the solution is to restore balance – in our own being, in our society, and in the relation between the social and natural worlds. The biggest challenge the human species has ever faced is staring us right in the face: can we reverse environmentally destructive trends and establish a viable presence on the planet? Or will we accelerate our rapid ride to oblivion?

The western world has lived for millennia by the philosophy of humans first, even humans only. It is now time for a new philosophy of earth first whereby human armies begin the process of radical retreat from their advances, provide the space for regenerating wilderness and wildlife, and find ways to harmonize their social world with the natural world. The great shrinkage of the human presence clearly requires a massive reduction of population numbers, but since human impact on the planet is measured both by the quantity and quality of its existence, human beings – those in the US above all -- must greatly curb consumption appetites, switch to eco-friendly technologies such as solar and wind energy power, and change in countless other ways.

Our crude material definitions of growth and progress must be replaced with psychological and ecological meanings and benchmarks. Human behavior and thinking from now on must be ecologically-focused. Before we do anything we must first consider the long term impact of our actions on the earth, other species, and future generations. In the words of social ecologist, Murray Bookchin, the only solution to our environmental crisis "is rooted in an ecological philosophy, ethics, sensibility, image of nature, and, ultimately, an ecological movement that will transform our domineering market society into a nonhierarchical cooperative society -- a society that will live in harmony with nature because its members live in harmony with each other."

When society does consider the need for change, such as on Earth Day, it stops far short of needed courses of action. If they recognize a crisis, people think somehow science, technology, or the market will find the solutions. No god will save us. There is no reform measure or technofix for systemic problems; solutions require a radical reorganization of everything from our psyches and worldviews to our technologies, economies, and social relations.

People must leave their comfort zone of change in two key ways. First, on the principle that the personal is political, individuals must examine their lifestyle choices. Yes, we need to xeriscape, recycle, and use hybrid cars, but the most profound change an individual can make is to shift from a meat-based to a plant-based diet. The Global Meat Culture is damaging the planet more than any other factor. While corporations like Exxon and Texaco exact massive tolls on the earth, the creme de la creme of corporate destruction are the meat and diary industries. Raising animals in giant livestock farms and on massive feedlots is a principle cause of rainforest destruction, desertification, global warming, species extinction, food and water waste, and air, land, and water pollution.

But, second, people need to reach outside their personal lives and lifestyle choices to become political animals. Capitalist selves seek individualistic solutions to problems that are deeply social and political; they confuse the meaning of citizen with their role as consumer, voter, and taxpayer. No significant change of any kind is possible until citizens create a counter-force to corporate power through grass roots organizations that defend the environment as they empower individuals politically.

The environmental crisis is a social crisis; it is fundamentally a crisis in democracy whereby the elite minority imposes its will upon the vast majority of people because they monopolize power. Hence, there must be a strong social, political, and democratic thrust to a new environmental movement. People must shift from writing letters and working for legislative change to involvement in local organizations that focus on direct action.

The New Ethic

If humanity is to survive and flourish in its precarious journey into the future, it needs a new moral compass because anthropocentrism has failed us dramatically. Albert Schweitzer observed that “the problem with ethics so far is that they have been limited to a human-to-human consideration.” In place of the alienated and predatory sensibility of Western life, Schweitzer proposed a new code – an “ethic of reverence for life.” This entails a universal ethic of compassion and respect that includes all humanity, embraces non-human species, and extends to the entire earth. We need a “Declaration of Interdependence” to replace our outmoded “Declaration of Independence.”

The demand to cease exploiting animals and the earth is one and the same; we cannot change in one area without changing in the other. Animal rights and environmental ethics are the logical next stages in human moral evolution and the next necessary steps in the human journey to enlightenment and wholeness.

Sadly, on Earth Day, as on every other day, the human species continues to invade and damage the planet. As I write, I receive a report from Traffic, a British-based wildlife monitoring group, saying that because of deforestation and trading in its body parts, the Sumatran tiger, Indonesia's last tiger sub-species, is on the brink of extinction. In addition, I read that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed two tropical birds, the Mariana mallard and the Guam broadbill, from its endangered species list – not because they are safe but because they became extinct. In some way we cannot possibly grasp, the entire earth is trying to adjust to their inalterable absence.

According to the cliché, “Every day is Earth Day.” Truth be told, every day is Human Growth Day. On April 22, the media might turn away from Michael Jackson or Bush’s terror war for a thirty second fluff piece on the state of the planet, and some individuals might pause for a moment to think about their environment. Like the evil-doer who sins all week and then atones on Sunday, human beings plunder the planet all year long and stop for a moment of guilt and expiation. We congratulate ourselves for honoring Earth Day, when in fact the very concept would be incoherent in an ecological society.

In honor of Earth Day it is appropriate to ask: what does it mean to be an environmentalist? Where industries, the state, and toxic nihilists of ever stripe want those who care about the environment to bear stigmas such as “kook,” wacko,” “un-American,” and even “terrorist,” being an environmentalist must become a badge of honor.

To be an environmentalist is to realize that one is not only a citizen of human society, one also is a citizen of the earth, an eco-citizen. Our community includes not only our society with other human beings on a national and international scale, but also our relations to the entire living earth, to the biocommunity. We need to act like we are citizens and not conquering invaders. We have not only a negative duty to avoid doing harm to the earth as much as possible, but also a positive duty to help nature regenerate.

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