The failure of environmentalism: After 46 years, what do we have to show for it?

Chuck Glossenger Photo by Virginia Daffron


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.


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

25 thoughts on “The failure of environmentalism: After 46 years, what do we have to show for it?

  1. Bill Butler

    The human population has a dependency upon and addiction to the goods and services provide by the combustion of fossil fuels.
    Where we go from here is a “contest” between what we should do vs. our addiction. When you consider what the word “addiction” really means, the “contest” isn’t much of a contest.
    I do have a vested interest in this contest. I have several web pages on the willful ignorance and lies of Global Warming Deniers. I am also retired and depend on dividends as my source of retirement income. My largest stock holding is in – ExxonMobil. It has and will continue to pay a good dividend return.

    • Chuck Glossenger

      350.0rg has a list of corporations,local governments,universities and the big Green Groups that are divesting from fossil fuels. I’m upset with all the environmental organizations that invested in fossil fuels with their members monies.

      • Bill Butler

        Divesting (selling your stock holdings) from fossil fuel companies doesn’t do any good. Once you sell your stock you have no influence/voice in what the company does, and whoever bought the stock may not be interested in reducing CO2 emissions. Corporations don’t care who owns their stock as long as the executives keep their jobs (and salaries).

        What is needed is something to replace oil for our transportation system. Electric cars have a problem with energy capacity. A “fill-er-up” that uses 16 gallons of gasoline has the same amount of energy as 9,000 pounds of fully charged lithium-ion batteries. A Tesla doesn’t have anywhere near 9,000 pounds of batteries, never mind that batteries degrade with time.

        The 200-mile quoted range of a Tesla is with new batteries. After 50 cycles of charging followed by driving, you aren’t going to get 200 miles per charge. This doesn’t include other things such as running the heater, running the air conditioner, the time required for a recharge if you are on an extended trip, etc.

        If I knew a good solution to this energy capacity problem, I wouldn’t hesitate in investing elsewhere, but I have to deal with reality.

        Finally, if you think I am a spokesman for fossil fuel companies, please see some of my web pages. For example:

        • Dave Erb

          I agree with your comment on divestment. Shareholder activism is a far more powerful tool for change.

          However, as an automotive engineer with 35 years in energy and emissions work, I’ll say politely that you’re not dealing with the reality of electric vehicles (EVs), despite your claim to the contrary. For example: A Tesla Model S (a big, honkin’, high performance luxury sedan) consumes 380 Wh per mile on the EPA cycle. The energy in 16 gallons of gasoline (about 540 kWh) could take it over 1400 miles, roughly five times its actual range. Its batteries have plenty of capacity, and not just when they’re new.

          Anyone seeking the truth about EVs should come out to Asheville’s National Drive Electric Week celebration this September. It’s a great opportunity to ride in lots of EVs (maybe even drive a Tesla or ride an electric motorcycle, if you’re lucky), talk to people with first hand experience, and cut through all the mis- and disinformation that permeates the public discourse.

          If you can’t wait that long, I welcome civil discussion. You can find my contact information in the faculty/staff directory at

      • Bob Bell

        you sold us out when you made the lairs at the MDEQ looks like heros – thanks, now go away to Ashville.

  2. Lulz

    LOL oh I know. Let’s ship manufacturing to China and India that have no environmental regs and then complain about the air quality here lulz.

    You have plenty to show for it. A bunch of poverty, misery, and lunacy. Led by the efforts of the most spoiled worthless generation, that of the Baby Boomers who have done everything to destroy the nation that gave them a good life yet left it ruined for those that followed. Go away. Too much dope smoking in your youths have made you a bunch of dopes.

    • zigzagzen

      Hey Timothy, I couldn’t read the article you posted.Only half of the article would download.So I don’t know your point ? You live under Socialism to some degree .We have Social Security,Medicare,Medic-Aid, and many federal laws and regulations for food safety,medicine safety,natural resource management,research,mail delivery,consumer protection laws with federal agencies,environmental protection.These government services are non profit and operate on taxes. The Golden Era of Capitalism that I think is what Republicans are saying they want to bring America back to was from 1940s to 1970, but it was a period of much government regulation and intervention into the economy. Not a period of free market Capitalism like they want also. Lyndon Baines Johnson should have signed Medicare in to law for every citizen and we wouldn’t be in the health insurance mess we are in .
      But for you to compare Venezuela to the United states is like comparing apples with oranges.Stick to the United States;the richest country in the history of the world,please.

      • I would disagree that the Golden Era of Capitalism was from the 1940s to 1970. I would say that we have never had capitalism in this country, least of all during that period. As you point out, we have always had a mixed economy with some economic freedom and some political controls. It’s rather like drinking a “mix” of water and poison. But the closest we ever came to a free market was from 1865 to 1913: The Innovative Era.

        The article prematurely lionizing Chavez loads fine for me, although slowly. It’s worth the wait.

        • zigzagzen

          My advocacy for Socialism as far as the environment goes is that Capitalism requires growth and growth requires energy and natural resources. Now,granted there has never been a no-growth economy that I’m aware of so we have to create one. When we go completely alternative energy then I would be less opposed to growth as the main economic criteria.But when I watch a NFL football game I tell people that in Canada while Canadians watch a hockey game they don’t have to put up with dueling hospitals wanting your business.How sick is competition amongst hospitals.Nor,do Canadians have a drug company advertisement every 10 minutes telling you to ask your doctor to put you on this new medication.Canadians don’t let the drug companies Rape their senior citizens like Amerika does.

          • I would not say that capitalism requires growth. That is a Marxist definition. Capitalism requires the acknowledgement and protection of individual rights, the establishment of an objective rule of law, and a limited government that whose primary purpose is the protection of rights, including property rights, by means of law enforcement, a court system, and the military.

  3. chuck

    Any year the U.S. doesn’t have growth it’s not a good year. Capitalism has been unable to provide it’s citizens with full health insurance after how many years ? Capitalism’s bottom line is profit.That’s not appropriate in the 21st century in a climate crisis and 7 billion people. Capitalism is good for starting up your infrastructure and help industrialize but then should be discarded so everyone can be wealthy and not just 1 %

  4. The Real World

    “Capitalism is good for starting up your infrastructure and help industrialize but then should be discarded so everyone can be wealthy and not just 1 %”

    Wow, just wow. There is so much that could be said about that statement. But, I’ll just go with:
    — Mostly it indicates a complete lack of understanding basic human design.
    — Also, please visit Russia or any of the other former Soviet countries and get back to us about how wealthy everyone is


      ” mostly it indicates a complete lack of understanding of basic human design”
      I think basic human design is to eat,drink,urinate,defecate,sleep,reproduce,survive the day,survive the disease,and then die. Now that we have science and technology and civilization we can make human life better than basic human design. We can rid the world of suffering but not if we want to make money on their suffering first.Catastrophe capitalism is so sick As far as Russia goes that was a communist country not Socialist and it went down for several reasons I wont take the time to go into here.

    • luther blissett

      Soviet Russia was not a model for anything, but as a nation, it was sufficiently wealthy that the post-Soviet privatization of its national assets into the hands of cronies created a bunch of billionaire oligarchs while the average standard of living and life expectancy plummeted.

      That’s all a distraction, though. We know the problem with market capitalism as it exists in the US: an emphasis on short-term profits, quarter by quarter, to satisfy the financial markets, and a refusal to acknowledge negative externalities. In that context, crapping all over the environment becomes an item on a spreadsheet where the cost of decent behavior (or merely legal compliance) is weighed up against the potential cost of fines to see whether it’s good business. That’s why cleaning up the CTS Superfund site at Mills Gap Road will cost much more — in dollars and lives — to clean up than was ever gained by dumping all those chemicals into the land, because externalities can be socialized while profits stay private.

      • zigzagzen

        Capitalism doesn’t seem up to the task of dealing with Global Warming.Remember George Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming because he said it would destroy the economy.Republicans are always wanting no regulations on Capitalism.Capitalism is too fragile for the 21st century.We need a planned economy not some Las Vegas crap shoot economy

  5. Mark Thomas

    Hey Chuck, Do you have any idea what the French Broad USED to look and smell like? We are making some environmental progress!


      Thank You Mark for any service you have done for the French Broad River. Progress is good but my point is if you take 46 years of official environmentalism and tally up how much money has been devoted to environmentalism from donations and grants…it’s in the billions…and then tally up what has been accomplished it’s not good at all despite progress.Part of this failure has to do with the alliance environmental groups made with the corporate polluters in the 80s and 90s and actually today. Part of it the wealthy philanthropists who function through foundations and are old oil money once they funded the green groups they started calling the shots and you will never get revolution from foundations will learn how to compromise

  6. Hartwell Carson

    The French Broad River use to be “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” and it now much much cleaner and support a thriving recreation industry. Coal ash on the French Broad River and many places around the state are being cleaned up, and the clean smoke stack act has dramatically improved the air quality in the region. Those are the direct result of environmental action from small local and large national environmental organizations. Are we as far as hoped to be, no, but we have come a very long way. If we throw our hands up and pronounce failure, we will never get there.

    • zigzagzen

      Hartwell, I know you are the RiverKeeper and you have this river at your heart and I thank you for your hard work and dedication,I by no means want to step on your toes.You are a hero of mine,just like the courageous bike riders in town with their low carbon foot print. When I use the word ” failure “, I mean in the sense of a business taking a inventory. If we try to put a smiley face on the current situation of the planet and the United States,then we miss the boat. 46 years is close to a half century and a honest appraisal is necessary. Green Groups have not taught their members or the public what the definition is of carbon footprint and how joe citizen is responsible for his own carbon footprint and heres 5 things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. The paradigm shift must include dismissing me and you as the environmentalists only.Now, everyone is an environmentalist because everyone has their own carbon footprint to care of. Environmental groups in the U.S. have done ZERO as far as global warming

  7. Peter Maier

    The Clean Water Act failed, when EPA established sewage treatment standards and used the essential BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) test incorrect. By using its 5-day reading, instead of its full 30-day reading, EPA not only ignored 60% of the pollution exerting oxygen, but EPA also ignored all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste, while this wasre also is a fertilizer for algae. By calling this now nutrient pollution, it is blamed on the runoffs from farms and cities, without having to admit that such a huge screw-up was made. The sad part is that nobody (media) seems to understand or cares!

    • zigzagzen

      that’s kind of a technical comment,Peter, if you could explain a little further please. I would like to know how you would apply that to my claim that eating meat is a big carbon dioxide emission producer that if an individual wanted to decrease their carbon footprint dramatically it would be by going vegetarian. All meat are considered to be a big CO 2 emission process compared to vegetarianism. I still eat meat but am cutting down. Cows fart and belch a lot of CO2

      • C

        Animals have been farting and belching for millennia -earth should be a wasteland by now.

        • zigzagzen

          Hey C: I don’t know if you have ever driven by dairy farms in California but they are miles long with thousands of farting cows.California has replaced Wisconsin s the top dairy state.Remember all that land the cows are on is not producing rice,potatoes,or other human foods.Big loss of land Lots of cowpies and methane being released

  8. Ellen Starkman

    While travelling through the beautiful state of Idaho, we saw many of the same signs to help the environment. Idaho is too beautiful to trash! Why can’t we try the same idea throughout NC?
    I live in the mountains near Asheville. Trash is everywhere…

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.