Non-environmentalists at Yale complain about us environmentalists taking away their trays, and our encouragement that they turn off their lights. But we, the environmentalists, have to suggest timidly to annoyed friends that they carry out those actions.
We get scolded for asking people to not waste food, and we question whether our actions have any real effects. Perhaps the most disheartening thing is that the great progress that has been made amounts to so little. Climate change recently ranked dead last in a Pew Research Center poll on what Americans perceived as priority issues, behind even the vague term “moral decline.”
Believe me, it is hard to be an environmentalist.
But this is not a rant. I want those days to be past, and I prefer this, my Earth Day (and every day), to be anxiety-free.
Instead of frustration, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued when a friend said that people act only in their own self-interest and in the short-term. There really are no incentives to change behavior for the environment, especially here at one of the wealthiest universities in the most powerful country on Earth. To be honest, he said, climate change simply will not affect Yalies that much. Environmentalists usually cringe at these statements. But what any successful environmental movement really needs to do is to move past our prepared counterpoints and responses. We must stop arguing and dictating and start understanding why people think this way.
Understanding brings us beyond environmentalism and ultimately exposes us to the fundamental characteristics of society that favor overconsumption, materialism and individualism. Environmental degradation is only one of many harmful by-products. Only by focusing and changing these fundamentals, not the symptoms, can we make real progress.
We must constantly question what seems standard and natural in society: private car ownership, the suburbs, food waste, industrial agriculture, constant economic growth. We need a vision, the possibility for a changed American society, to enter the public consciousness.
Gus Speth, the outgoing dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, in his new book, “Bridge at the Edge of the World,” emphasizes this strategy. A veteran of the environmental movement, Speth realizes that the environmental problems that have steadily been building since the 1970s cannot be solved within our current societal structure. He emphasizes that corporations must be held legally accountable to society, and that the cult of GDP growth must be replaced by a focus on improving education, health and living standards.
Under heterodox economic models that incorporate human health, working hours, feelings of well-being and the environment, our GDP has been falling since the 1970s. We must challenge materialism and consumerism as sources of happiness. Within the context of climate change, the need for this drastic overhaul of American society is greater than ever. A green world can only happen with a fundamental restructuring of our how society works.
Thirty-nine years ago, Senator Gaylord Nelson and a nationwide coalition of activists, outraged at lead contamination, DDT poisoning, polluting power plants, freeways and the loss of wilderness, organized a nationwide teach-in about environmental problems, leading to the inaugural Earth Day. Though some progress has been made to offset new environmental problems, many of these problems have persisted.
By functioning only on an issue-to-issue basis, the environmental movement can provide only temporary solutions. The electric car was possible in the early 1990s, but the project was axed. Superfund, the governmental treasure chest for cleaning up contaminated and toxic sites, ran out of money in 2003. At Yale at least, people are tired of climate change and carbon emissions. We have become complacent, resigned to letting STEP turn off our lights for us.
The idea of a completely different society and the existence of a multitude of alternatives in the future is liberating, soothing, energizing. For this Earth Day, I hope people take some time to reflect on the idea of a changed society in the future. It doesn’t even have to do with environmentalism. Just imagining a world with a new conception of what is natural, what is standard and what is the norm will be the first step in a long road ahead. We must renew environmentalism.
Charles Zhu is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.