A world of differences among environmental issues While environmental issues are more ingrained in the public mind than ever, Earth Day isn’t treated with the same level of gravitas in America that it was when first celebrated 45 years ago today, according to some local academics and activists.
Whether this is a sign of success or failure in addressing environmental issues is open to debate.
“I think perhaps some have lost interest in Earth Day because we take for granted that there will always be clean water, clean air and abundant food supplies,” said Duncan Hughes, headwaters outreach director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “This is not a given.”
The politicization of science, particularly with regard to climate change, has also played a role in the waning popularity of Earth Day.
“I think part of the way in which science has been politicized is that folks pick the exceptions and make an argument that that’s the rule,” said Jeffrey Berejikian, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia who has expertise in environmental politics.
While seminal environmental legislation, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, emerged in the immediate years following the first Earth Day in 1970, similar rallying points have not come since.
In fact, the opposite is true, in many cases, as certain interests work to strip protections in the acts, while animosity toward the federal Environmental Protection Agency has reached a fever pitch in some political circles.
Finally, there is a growing awareness about the economic costs associated with environmental issues, costs that are prohibitive for some businesses but good for the bottom line of others.
The seeping in
In some ways, Earth Day’s influence rests with how great an urgency the public places on addressing environmental issues.
“I would say the initial radical meaning of Earth Day is not diminished, but environmental values are now such a part of culture that we don’t notice how our own consciousness and values have changed,” said John O’Sullivan, a professor in the University of North Georgia’s Institute for Environmental & Spatial Analysis.
It seems paradoxical then that as the scientific consensus forms around the threat posed by environmental issues such as climate change, the American public appears less concerned than ever.
For example, a 1971 poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation reported that 63 percent of respondents said conserving, restoring and enhancing the environment was “very important.”
But a similar 2013 Huffington Post media group poll found that just 39 percent of respondents said it was “very important,” with a growing level of indifference among many surveyed.
And 56 percent of respondents to the 1971 poll supported increased federal spending to protect the environment, while in 2013 that figure fell to only 29 percent, and 33 percent said spending should be decreased.
Perhaps this polling explains why the Pentagon says climate change is a national security issue, but no mention was made of it during the final and most critical debate of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
It may also explain why a consensus of scientists identify the link between humans, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, while the general public isn’t as convinced.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 61 percent of Americans believe that solid evidence exists showing that the world is warming as a result of emissions, but less than half of respondents said it was a major threat to the United States.
These figures were higher or lower, respectively, depending on whether the respondent identified as a Democrat or Republican.
Environmental issues have seeped into the collective consciousness in a way that makes addressing them seem less pressing.
“Our society has become increasingly disconnected from the resources which sustain us,” Hughes said. “Water does not come from pipes; food does not originate in the grocery store.”