Earth Day 2011: Reality bites

Friday marks the 41st anniversary of Earth Day and provides the customary opportunity to take stock of the environmental movement in this country. Unfortunately, for all the talk of the greening of America, it's been a pretty rotten 12 months for the planet and its defenders.

Just look at the bookend events: A year ago this week, the Gulf of Mexico suffered the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Whatever the lessons learned from that trauma, it hasn't resulted in big changes to the country's oil-dependent energy strategies. Even a relatively brief interruption in offshore drilling drew howls of protest from the industry and its supporters.


Meanwhile, the Supreme Court heard arguments this week in the six-state lawsuit to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and, judging from the justices' questions, the plaintiffs ought not hold their collective breath — unless it's to avoid those 650 million tons of carbon dioxide the plants pump out each year. The justices seem to think the matter is better left in the hands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, despite the fact that the embattled agency's overdue efforts may yet be stymied by Congress.

Indeed, if one faced the challenging assignment of picking the environmental low point of the last 12 months, it may have been House Republicans' recent effort to strip the EPA of much of its funding and halt the greenhouse gas rulemaking. Crisis averted with the recent budget agreement? Not quite. What the House majority couldn't accomplish with one big bite may yet be nibbled away over time.


In Maryland, the General Assembly also showed little interest in helping the environment. Gov. Martin O'Malley's biggest setbacks in the recently concluded session involved his effort to curb pollution from septic tanks and encourage the development of offshore wind power.

Even the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, the environmental cause most deeply felt locally, may be losing some of its appeal. The EPA's Watershed Implementation Plan, the federal effort to tighten pollution controls in the region, is generating powerful opposition, and its leading critic on the Hill is not some out-of-town yahoo who doesn't know a blue crab from a mallet but represents Virginia's Sixth Congressional District.

Some will be tempted to dismiss the negative trend as a function of the dismal economy and the high unemployment rate. Protecting the environment is widely seen as destructive to job creation, and right now growing the economy is a top priority for elected officials, whether in Washington or Annapolis.

But that's a shortsighted view, if not an outright false choice. As President Barack Obama has so often pointed out, pro-environment policies that promote such helpful developments as renewable energy and recycling actually create new jobs in green industries with far better long-term economic prospects than many traditional polluters.

China is spending billions to become the world leader in energy alternatives. The U.S. has traditionally had an advantage in innovation but is quickly losing ground.

Even the current occupant of the White House has been a disappointment for many in the environmental community. His failure to push for energy reforms early in his term, for instance, has proved disastrous for global efforts to address climate change.

The American people appear to be conflicted. A recent Gallup poll shows an overwhelming 83 percent of voters would like Congress to take up legislation promoting alternative energy, rating it a far higher priority than expanded drilling for oil or gas. But this is the same American electorate that chose the new House majority, with its antipathy toward regulating polluters.

The environment may yet prove to be an Achilles heel for Republicans in the next election, but don't count on it yet. Democrats probably aren't rushing out to attend Earth Day ceremonies either — unless it's a non-political tree planting or the equivalent.


That's a far cry from four decades ago, when Earth Day was heartily embraced by members of both parties and seen as a bipartisan attempt to reclaim a neglected planet by rich and poor, young and old. Today's serious threats to the quality of our air, land and water can't be cured by merely reusing plastic grocery bags, recycling water bottles or singing folks songs around the solar-powered campfire.

If the environmental movement can learn one thing from last year's successful tea party uprising, it's the power of being "mad as hell" and not taking it anymore. But if the Deepwater Horizon accident and the shameless attempted mugging of the EPA by the GOP can't raise the public's ire, perhaps it is a lost cause after all.