Photo by Earth Day New York

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently announced that Russia secretly supports environmental groups that oppose fracking. Speaking at Chatham House, a London think tank, Rasmussen said that Moscow is running a “sophisticated information and disinformation” campaign that exploits the environmental movement to sway public opinion and influence government policies against fracking, thereby helping reduce global supplies of gas and oil and keeping Europe—and Moscow’s new energy client, China—dependent on Russian pipelines.

When I read Rasmussen’s comments, my first thought was: which came first, the Reds or the Greens? Was Soviet Russia already playing the environmental card at the first Earth Day, in April 1970, or did Moscow learn the usefulness of green politics from the American radicals who organized that initial celebration in Union Square?

I covered that event for the Village Voice. When I returned to Union Square for Earth Day 2014, this past April, I wondered if this year’s celebration would be anything like the original—a frantic gathering of ad hoc ecologists and political manipulators yelling about pollution and Armageddon. But the 2014 event turned out to be a serene assembly, well-attended by school kids and tourists, with vendors hawking environmentally friendly Toyotas, the New York Times, and stays in sustainable hotels. Radical green activists, it seems, no longer need to demonstrate. Today, they’re firmly in power in Union Square, Washington, D.C., and just about everywhere else.

I had accepted the Voice assignment reluctantly. In 1970, Earth Day appeared to be just another attempt by the liberal left to annoy Richard Nixon and undermine support for the war in Vietnam. The Daughters of the American Revolution had denounced the environmental movement as a subversive plot. If anything, I thought I might have the makings of a humor piece. Five minutes after arriving in Union Square, however, I realized that DAR was right. The park was filled with hip subversives handing out graphic illustrations of our dying planet. I knew some of them from the Lower East Side. Their politics ranged from macrobiotic to anarchism, and several had recently led a boycott of Con Edison, the electric utility, going without lights for 24 hours to punish the company for some offense I don’t recall. (And yet, Con Ed sponsored the Earth Day event.) The same crowd was now clamoring for clean rivers and unpolluted air. A few were on the radical varsity, among them a neighbor who later became an auxiliary in the Weather Underground, a group that would soon trade bombast for bombs. I wondered why the Left was suddenly preaching ecological salvation. A man who worked for an antiwar organization explained with a little slice of Marx lite: “Air and water are the means of production.”

Earth Day, which despite its name lasted well into the night, made no sense at all. My Voice article expressed doubt that an effective movement could be built on do-good improvements to the environment. How can you create a movement unless you have demons to expel and enemies to conquer? Clean air, clean water, and recycling? Everyone wants those things. It all seemed so innocent, a departure for the antiwar activists who had run LBJ out of office.

In short, the significance of what happened in Union Square in 1970 totally escaped me. I would never have guessed that in a few years, I’d be part of the green congregation myself, writing end-of-the-world stories about “peak oil” and the irreversible effects of global cooling. I saw no possibility that Earth Day ideology, helped along by volumes of new environmental laws and regulations, would expand and develop to the point where, 44 years later, like the Con Ed protestors of yore, I would find myself stumbling around in the dark rather than turn the lights on and risk burning out my few remaining incandescent bulbs.

But for all their insistence, the Union Square radicals could not have predicted what happened next. A mere eight months after the first Earth Day, President Nixon jumped on the conservation bandwagon, issuing Executive Order 1102, which established the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor could they and Nixon have dreamed that by 2014, the green crusade would grow to include some 26,000 local, state, and national environmental and conservancy organizations, with 25 million members and bulging coffers—by far the largest, richest, and most successful social movement in the country.

America’s air, earth, and waterways are far cleaner now than they were in 1970. The first Earth Day’s cataclysmic forecasts didn’t come true. Food production has stayed well ahead of demand. Projected population booms in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China have given way to dramatic declines in birth rates. For naturalists and conservationists who truly care about the environment, Earth Day, then and now, was a triumph. But for green radicals, the crisis remains.

The trouble with promising doomsday is that eventually you must deliver. For 44 years, the green faithful have waited for the climate catastrophe that will finally sweep the skeptics aside. They’ve had to make do with alarming portents: drought in California, floods in Europe, too little ice in the Arctic, too much ice in the Antarctic, typhoons and tornadoes everywhere, Hurricane Sandy, fracking. In 2005, author James Howard Kunstler published The Long Emergency, a frightening portrayal of a not-too-distant future without fossil fuels. Humanity will survive the end of oil, Kunstler wrote, by riding bikes and retreating into a medieval cocoon. Alas, for Kunstler, his book and North Dakota light sweet crude oil arrived on the market at the same time. Now Kunstler touts the downside of growth and the upside of a contracting economy.

Though the climate has failed to warm, dire forecasts haven’t panned out, biofuels are more harmful to the environment than oil and gas, and wind turbines in Altamont Pass kill golden eagles, the environmental movement remains resilient. It grants itself generous exemptions from its own rules and doesn’t sweat the details. Secure in their conviction that bad times are just around the corner, the greens proselytize with fresh fervor. And yet, while they can manipulate the data and the media, they can’t make the Earth follow orders.


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