BY CHUCK GLOSSENGER
Let’s have a candid discussion about the modern social movement of “environmentalism” that originated in the United States on April 22,1970 — the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans protested, celebrated and initiated a decade that produced the Environmental Protection Agency and our first real environmental laws.
Case studies show that social movements in the U.S. — such as those for women’s suffrage, industrial unions, civil rights, equal rights for women and the environment — all resulted in changes in government due to new laws. Yet as sociology professor G. William Domhoff noted in his 2005 essay, “Social Movements and Strategic Nonviolence,” each one didn’t go far enough, and the next cycle of movement activism becomes necessary.
After 46 years of environmentalism, what do we have to show for it?
In North Carolina, air pollution causes about 3,000 premature deaths annually, as well as 200,000 asthma attacks from smog, plus 500,000 missed work days, according to the Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center.
Death rates are falling for pneumonia, emphysema, and asthma due to cleaner air, as noted in a 2015 Asheville Citizen-Times article. But even low levels of pollution still have adverse health effects on people. And continued population growth in Western North Carolina will offset those improvements, since more people moving to WNC means more cars and more air pollution. Improved air and water in WNC are not the same things as clean air and water.
Meanwhile, every river in North Carolina is classified as a legally impaired stream due to mercury pollution, the EPA noted in its North Carolina Water Quality Assessment Report, and each one has a fish advisory about how often and how much fish you can safely eat. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to consume any mercury. Testing for metals in the French Broad River in 2012 and 2013 indicated the presence of boron, cobalt, barium and nickel, according to information complied by the nonprofit MountainTrue. Some of these pollutants are carcinogens and never break down.
On the recycling front, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality estimates an overall recycling rate of around 30 percent (about the national average), but North Carolina also throws away $270 million worth of recyclable goods each year, according to state statistics. There is no bottle bill deposit law in North Carolina, and the litter — especially along rivers — is horrendous.
So far as the country as a whole, the EPA reports a U.S. recycling rate of 34.3 percent of our waste stream, which lags behind many other developed countries. (Germany, by comparison, has an 87 percent recycling rate.) The Global Green Economy Index, produced by private U.S.-based consultancy Dual Citizen in 2014, lists 60 countries, grading them based on environment, climate change and low carbon growth. The U.S. came in 28th place.
Turning to water-quality issues, after the Dan River spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act —but why did it take that calamity to prompt legislative action, when for decades coal-ash ponds have been seeping into rivers in North Carolina?
When we look at the United States as a whole, we find the federal Clean Water Act’s failure to meet its original policy goal of having our water quality improved so all waters are “fishable and swimmable.” Thirty percent of American waterways are unsafe for swimming and fishing, as noted in a 2014 report on the Clean Water Act. And 44 percent of all Americans reside in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, the American Lung Association reported last year in its State of the Air 2015 report.
The U. S. has 400,000 brownfield-polluted land sites and 1,280 Super Fund sites to clean up, as noted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Plus, the EPA estimates that a quarter of all Americans lives within 3 miles of a hazardous waste site.
But the United States’ biggest environmental problem is that from 1880 to 2006, we were the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China overtook the U.S. as the No. 1 emitter in 2006, but the average American emits twice their Chinese counterpart, according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute.
Climate scientists were warning of global warming in the 1980s, which did get media attention. Al Gore preached about climate change in the 1990s. Yet in 1992, the U.S. blocked calls for action at a United Nations climate conference in Rio de Janeiro. In 1997, the U.S. rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which would have committed the U.S. to specified, legally binding reductions in emissions of six greenhouse gases. And in February, the Supreme Court issued a “stay” on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan after 29 states (including North Carolina) sued to stop the plan.
Now we’re in a situation where drastic planetary overheating in this century is a done deal. The goal to stop temperatures from rising 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures by 2050 will never happen. Last year was the warmest one since the advent of modern record keeping in 1880, according to analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with 15 of the 16 warmest years on record happening since 2001.
At the local level, if you were to aim a radar device at traffic in WNC, I believe you would find that virtually no one drives the speed limit. Every mile per hour you go over the speed limit increases your carbon footprint.
So as an American in 2016, we must realize that everyone is an environmentalist due to climate change. We all have the responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint. You can get part way to carbon neutrality through how you live your life. But you should know that you don’t live in a green country or a green state.
During the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of nonprofit environmental groups formed, millions of new members sent money to these groups, and foundations gave them money. In the 1990s, environmental groups started the corporate-environmental group partnership. This reflects the acceptance of corporations as allies rather than adversaries and the free market capitalistic system as the acceptable tool to pursue environmental problems.
These big green groups are currently invested in fossil fuels and are committed to full divestment: Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Sierra Club Foundation, WWF-UK and the Wilderness Society.
Pope Francis has been a longtime critic of capitalism. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is running on a socialist platform. Maybe if environmental groups had been preparing the way for a economic system other than capitalism for the past 46 years, Americans would see it as more feasible now. Instead, the green groups co-opted the environmental movement by taking money from polluters — as The New York Times and others reported in 2012 — which continues to this day.
The rise of global warming in the U.S. has happened on environmental groups’ clock. If you go on green groups’ websites today, climate change is just another issue. Environmentalists as role models should all be vegetarian and using public transit instead of personal cars.
The need for environmentalism is still present, but credibility is at an all-time low for green groups, with a CNN poll showing that only 50 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused by emissions. Meanwhile, 56 percent of Congressional Republicans deny or question the science on global warming.
In nearly a half century of environmentalism, dedicated individuals have made gains in the United States and North Carolina to clean up and protect the environment, but they have been undermined by capitalism, politicians and the big green groups themselves. A new coalition must form as we learn from the errors from the past as well as deal with the moral dilemma of our century: global warming.
Chuck Glossenger lives in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and has been an environmental activist since 1970. A part-time Asheville resident, he plans to move here later this year.