The Environmental Revival

Catalyst / by Veronique Greenwood /

Which modern enviro concepts are throwbacks to the past? Four experts discuss the technologies, laws, and states of mind that have their roots in the first wave of the environmental movement.

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

What are the best of the environmental throwbacks?
Our Panel Responds:

Imagine a city where the main boulevard has been converted to a greenway, replete with thousands of trees, birdsong, and even a creek. Battery-powered buses and free bicycles stationed at each corner replace cars, which are banned. For intercity travel, high-speed magnetic trains transport passengers as fast as a plane—in fact, the trains are made by Boeing, which abandoned the polluting business of air travel long ago. The city’s food waste, sewage, and garbage are composted for fertilizer. All the produce is organically grown. The livestock are free-range. Scientists provide third-party review of foods, keeping companies honest. And everything from clothes to containers is biodegradable in keeping with the overarching principle of sustainability. At night in the city, you can look up and see the stars for the first time in more than a century.

Sound like a modern green fantasy, designed by a team of hotshot urban planners and enviro activists? In fact, the city dates from 1975. It is a vision of San Francisco from the landmark novel Ecotopia, which embodied the ideas of the environmental movement at the time—ideas, of course, that are very similar to the up-and-coming designs of today.

With all the talk about a new green revolution, new energy paradigms, and climate change, it’s easy to overlook how many of the pillars of modern environmentalism are not, in fact, new. A whole host of these dynamic, forward-looking ideas were born in the 60s and 70s.

Biologists Howard and Eugene Odum developed the modern image of the Earth as an intricate tracery of biological systems in the 1960s. They were also the first to point out that crops are in some sense made of oil, in that it takes oil to fertilize them, harvest them, and transport them. In the 60s and early 70s, Robert MacArthur helped transform the natural history-based ecology of the past into the systemic, ahistorical science of today. In 1977, solar power made its first serious move towards the mainstream as President Jimmy Carter famously installed panels on the White House roof and provided the first solar incentives to individuals. And iconoclasts like Buckminster Fuller were designing for sustainability long before that.

What are the best ideas—be they technologies, concepts, legal policies, or states of mind—that have been revived from the first wave environmental movement? Which forgotten ideas should be revisited? And are there any ideas you’re glad have been left to the past?

What ideas in the interim have really changed the game?


Climate Change Was Not Even on the Radar

Denis Hayes was the founding head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory during the Carter administration and the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1975. Having served on dozens of boards, he is now the president and CEO of The Bullitt Foundation.

This question seems best suited to a list!

The best technologies revived from the 1960s and 1970s:

  • Solar photovoltaic cells to produce safe, clean distributed power.
  • Integrated circuits allowing us to make everything “smart.”
  • Plug-in serial hybrid autos. (John Reuyl was hand-building them by 1978, but he had only lead-acid batteries to use. Porsche had actually tried them six decades earlier.)
  • Integrated pest management.
  • Super-efficient passive solar buildings.

The best concepts and laws:

  • The air, waters, and ground are not public dumps into which anyone can pour unlimited toxic materials.
  • Citizens have the right to enforce environmental laws when governments fail to act.
  • The Endangered Species Act (and the Marine Mammal Protection Act)—protecting life whether or not it directly serves a human purpose. Perhaps the most selfless laws ever passed.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act, requiring that we assess the environmental impacts of major projects before proceeding.

The best states of mind:

  • The Earth is finite. Nothing can grow forever on a globe.
  • In our democracy, an informed, aroused citizenry can still overcome huge odds to end a war, advance human rights, and protect the biosphere. “Who says you can’t save the world?”
  • Environmental values lead to sustainable jobs. This was understood early on—the largest source of financial support for the first Earth Day was organized labor, and I helped found a group called “Environmentalists for Full Employment” back in 1971. The natural alliance was forgotten in the heat of the “jobs versus owls” debate and with the collapse of Detroit. However, today, under the banner of “green jobs,” it is reemerging as an important idea.

The ideas that should be revisited:

  • The Earth has a finite long-term carrying capacity for Homo sapiens. That carrying capacity relates to affluence and technological choices. It could support 10 billion people for a long time if everyone lived like Chinese peasants, but not even Chinese peasants want to live that way. If humanity aspires to, say, a Swedish or Japanese standard of living, it already has at least twice as many humans as it can support. Zero population growth is inadequate; we need negative population growth to avoid calamity.
  • Recycling is serious business in a resource-limited world. We are lagging behind Europe, and even Europe is not having much success with electronics recycling.
  • Solar access laws that provide people who install solar collectors the right not to have their equipment shaded by later development.

The ideas best left to the past:

  • Some things we thought were true have been shown to be simply wrong. For example, we thought the greatest threat to the ozone layer came from oxides of nitrogen whereas it turned out to be from CFCs.
  • Some of the wilder greens had ideas that never proved very persuasive, e.g. carrying small cloths with you, and washing them daily, to use instead of toilet paper. I’m happy to leave that one in the past.
  • Recycling started with people carting their paper, glass, and cans to centralized recycling centers. By 1990, it was clear that this made no sense and we began pushing for curbside recycling.

The ideas since the first wave that have really changed the game:

  • Climate change was not an issue on anyone’s mind at the time of the first Earth Day. It wasn’t until 1979, when the National Academy of Sciences produced a report saying that that evidence warranted action, that it began filtering outside the atmospheric sciences community.
  • In 1970, CFCs would have been on a lot of lists as a true triumph of industrial chemistry—nontoxic, nonflammable, nonexplosive compounds with myriad valuable uses. A few years later, we discovered that they were a threat to life on Earth and must be banned.
  • With the success of Patagonia, Interface, Whole Foods, and many others, there is now a recognition that “environmentalists” don’t have to work for the Sierra Club. Environmentalism is a set of values, and environmentalists need to carry those values throughout industry and government if we are to succeed.

Revive Faith in Our Ingenuity

Mary Nichols brought the first litigation under the Clean Air Act of 1970. Among many other appointments, she has served as the California Secretary of Resources and as the Assistant Administrator of Air and Radiation for the EPA. She is currently the chairman of the California Air Resource Board.

I graduated from law school in 1971 and began my career as an environmentalist at the same time the basic US environmental protection statutes (NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act) were coming into force. I think of myself as an urban environmentalist, in contrast with many in the movement who are agrarians at heart. I believe that we humans can think and invent our way out of most of the problems we have created, but it becomes harder as the scale and complexity of pollution requires social and economic cooperation at a scale previously unknown.

What worked and deserves to come back: performance-based regulations that are crafted with knowledge of what technology can do if we demand it. What did not work and should be consigned to the dust heap of history: a belief that if you don’t build it they won’t come. Litigation and political pressure to limit or reduce density of housing, transportation, sewage treatment, and other infrastructure cannot reduce the environmental impact of cities.

The progressive engagement of chemistry, biology, the social sciences, urban planning, architecture, moral philosophy, and religion in solving our environmental dilemmas have each been game changers in their time, but I am still waiting for the insights that can only come from music and art.


Don’t Forget about Population

Described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” Lester Brown is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, where he also serves as president. His most recent book is Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a forgotten idea, but it has slipped off the radar a bit: population. In the early days of the environmental movement, a number of us spoke about the dangers of unchecked population growth. The planet is now trying to support 6.7 billion people. Humanity’s collective demands surpassed the Earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. Today our demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield capacity by an estimated 25 percent. In addition, the world now has more than 1 billion
chronically hungry and malnourished people. We are setting ourselves up for
collapse unless we ratchet down our population.

A number of great ideas have changed the game since the environmental movement began. I’ll focus on renewable energy, which has gone through a huge revolution, especially in the last year. There isn’t enough space here to detail the number of huge projects currently underway for wind, solar, and geothermal power, but we are seeing a significant increase in renewable energy projects that will make it possible to considerably cut carbon emissions quickly. For instance, the enormous number of wind projects under development in Texas, on top of the 9,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation and under construction, will bring Texas to more than 50,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants) when all these wind farms are completed. This will more than satisfy the needs of the state’s 24 million residents.

Nationwide, new wind-generating capacity in 2008 totaled 8,400 megawatts while new coal plants totaled only 1,400 megawatts. The annual growth in solar generating capacity will also soon overtake that of coal. The United States has led the world in each of the last four years in new wind-generating capacity, but China appears set to blow by the United States in 2009.

China, with its Wind Base program, is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with generating capacities that range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, for a total of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the hundreds of smaller wind farms built or planned. Wind is not the only option. In July 2009, a consortium of European corporations led by Munich Re, and including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and ABB, in addtion to an Algerian firm, announced a proposal to tap the massive solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Solar thermal power plants in North Africa could economically supply half of Europe’s electricity. The Algerians have enough harnessable solar energy in their desert to power the world economy. The soaring investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy is being driven by the exciting realization that these renewables can last as long as the Earth itself.


Hard Times—Whenever They Are—Breed Environmental Responsibility

Henry Pollack has been a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan for more than 40 years, travels regularly to Antarctica, and has conducted scientific research on all seven continents. The author of the forthcoming A World Without Ice, he now serves as a science adviser to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

Some of the core concepts of the environmental first wave, in the 60s and 70s, were actually practiced by earlier generations in times of hardship, and it might take more hardship, rather than simply ideology, for them to truly be implemented.

A short time ago I came across a brief survey about attitudes toward recycling in different age groups. The question posed was something like this: Which age group shows the greatest willingness to recycle household paper, plastic, glass, and cans? There were only three choices: under 35, 35–70, and over 70. My first reaction was to choose the youngest group, feeling that they were the generation that grew up during the rise of the modern environmental movement. They were the generation that participated in Earth Days, that were urged to turn down the thermostat and turn off the lights, that heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Indeed, the survey results showed that this group displayed a high level of willingness, but to my surprise they did not lead the survey. The most willing age group was the over-70s.

In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise. These senior citizens were the folks that grew up during World War II and were asked to collect and recycle paper, tin and aluminum foil, rubber bands and scrap metal as part of the war effort. They felt good about contributing to conservation of materials that were necessary to supply our troops with the equipment they needed to defend the nation. In last place in this survey were the baby boomers, those in the gap between the old-timers and the young generation. The boomers grew up in a time of apparently unbounded affluence, a time when the landfill became the destination for unwanted household items, many used for only a short time. It was a time of “planned obsolescence.”

Recycling is an old idea, practiced by today’s seniors when they were young and by today’s youth and young adults. It was an idea temporarily forgotten in the boomer era. World War II also made today’s seniors early practitioners of what has become the “locavore” movement. With the planting of ‘victory gardens’ on residential land, many citizens and neighborhoods grew vegetables that augmented the national food supply with the most local food production possible.

The parallels between the conservation efforts during World War II and the conservation efforts of today are clear. During World War II the very existence of the nation was under military attack. Today the habitat of all of humanity is under environmental attack. Our senior citizens showed that when people are properly motivated to save something, they can rise to the occasion. Let us hope that today’s generation is motivated to respond with similar determination.

Originally published October 27, 2009

Tags energy policy public perception technology

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