Whatever Happened to
the Environmental Movement?

(and other late-summer complaints)

A strange thing happened on the way to the new millennium: the environmental movement disappeared. Oh, it hasn't gone into total abeyance, of course. There is still extensive legislation on the books. Anti-pollution laws are still enforced, after a fashion. Clean air and water standards still apply. Threatened species are still protected from extinction, if cuddly enough. Politicians of all stripes claim to love nature.

Nevertheless, things are different. Perhaps it's the spirit of the times, but environmentalism as a movement no longer seems to capture the public's fancy. We still observe the groundbreaking legislation of the 1970s (though Congress tries to weaken it whenever the opportunity arises), but where is the landmark legislation of the 1990s? Where are the marches, demonstrations, and teach-ins? Earth Day has become like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July: an occasion to enjoy outdoor activities, but not much else. The sense of urgency is gone.

Signs of this lack of concern are everywhere, most obviously on our highways. The popularity of the ubiquitous SUV, an inherently wasteful vehicle that uses more than its share of road space, consumes more than its share of gasoline, and produces more than its share of polluted air, is symbolic of the heedless mood. So is the proliferation of mechanized entertainment powered by the internal combustion engine -- ATVs, RVs, jet skis, snowmobiles, and the like.

So, too, the mass acceptance in all areas of life of computerized digital technology, a technology dependent on electricity that originates with the burning of finite and polluting fossil fuels. Those brightly colored computer screens don't illuminate themselves, after all. Add to this the suburban sprawl gradually turning rural America, with apparent public approval (or, at least, acquiescence), into a series of subdivisions connected by shopping malls.

Even the now-obvious increase in global warming, which threatens to raise average world temperatures by a degree a decade over the next century, has failed to dissuade Americans from compulsive overconsumption and a development pattern based on the belief that more-and-bigger is better. And underlying it all is an activated population bomb -- the problem that dare not speak its name -- ticking worldwide, but helped along in the U.S. by expanded immigration and tax incentives for childbirth.

The uncritical acceptance or unawareness of what is transpiring reveals a mindset that is a far cry from the ecological sensibility of thirty years ago. Generational change undoubtedly has a lot to do with the altered circumstances. Although it caught fire around 1970, environmentalism was really a spiritual product of the 1960s, that demeaned decade of activism. Now, however, the '60s activists are slowly, if reluctantly, slipping into middle age and eyeing retirement; they have cast off the concerns of their youth in favor of more material endeavors. And their children seem not to have adopted those concerns at all.

Each new generation arrives with a fresh reservoir of energy, creativity, and commitment, but it has only so much of these commodities. The question is how to spend them. In the '30s and '40s, the expenditure went into battling a depression and winning a war. In the '60s and early '70s, it went into political causes (civil rights and the anti-war movement, as well as environmentalism) and, to a lesser degree, the arts (especially music). In the '90s, the investment of generational capital is going almost exclusively into two pursuits: creating new information technology and using it to make money.

It's no accident that while we are constantly told that things, in general, have never been better, it is apparent that many things, in particular, have never been worse. Few knowledgeable observers would argue against the proposition that the arts and politics are in a gray period. Movies are as forgettable as they've been in years, amounting to little more than simplistic and mindless entertainment dressed up in garish special effects. Popular music, which experienced a golden age of sorts three decades ago with the melding of folk, rock, and blues, is now stale and derivative, depending on outlandish presentation and shocking lyrics for its impact. Best-selling books, far from being literature, have mostly become the ghost-written collected thoughts of non-writers, presented as celebrity publications. Other art forms are similarly afflicted.

Politics, which totally captured the public imagination just a quarter-century ago, is now the domain of the bland, the uninteresting, and the uninspiring. Barring dramatic changes over the next few months, we appear to be headed for the most boring presidential election in modern history, with vision-challenged candidates refusing (or unable) to define themselves, little discussion of real issues, and a policy consensus bred of national self-satisfaction and complacency. This is not the Era of Good Feelings (as historians dubbed the non-partisan 1820s); it's the Era of No Feelings. It is a telling commentary that, when people are asked to select a political hero, most hark back to someone like Bobby Kennedy, who left the public stage three decades ago. He and others like him have never been replaced, except by two-dimensional stick figures. In such a political environment, even a Jesse Ventura begins to look good.

To give him his due, President Clinton has recently tried to shake up the process with his latter-day war (more accurately, skirmish) on poverty. Unfortunately, his New Democratic version of compassionate conservatism -- business tax incentives to spur self-interested volunteerism by corporate America -- is unlikely to stir the juices or solve the problem. Intransigent poverty has never yielded an inch without concerted government action.

Lyndon Johnson's original war against want actually did reduce poverty in the 1960s through government spending programs, cutting it approximately in half before the hands-off policies and budget cutting of the Reagan years permitted a substantial resurgence. The prosperity of the 1990s has yet to reverse the negative tide by reaching those truly in need, although it has certainly benefitted the upper and upper-middle classes. The market is simply not geared to addressing social problems, and both political parties are presently wedded to market solutions.

This points up one of the dreary realities of late '90s politics: There is no institutional advocate for the less fortunate. Both major parties are trying to position themselves where they think the voters are: slightly right of center on the ideological spectrum. Whether it's the "practical idealism" of Al Gore or the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush -- six of one, half-dozen of the other -- all politics is currently concentrated in a very narrow range somewhere between conservative Democrat and moderate Republican. The too-mean far right is discredited; we can't go there. The left, for its part, has never been brought into the discussion.

Meanwhile, the American people, encouraged by the booming (for some) economy, have been persuaded that politics doesn't matter. If we're all going to live happily ever after anyway, why bother to get involved in a corrupt system? So, to answer the question posed at the start, what happened to the environmental movement is that it, like other political causes, has succumbed to the ennui of the 1990s, a public listlessness born of lack of interest.

Whether that sense of unconcern will persist is anyone's guess. Perhaps it will take a national or international environmental calamity to divert Americans from their self-absorbed and obsessive preoccupation with technology and the stock market. Let's hope not.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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