Green Like Money

Earth Day coverage shows how much the environmental movement has changed

Earth Day rose from a powerfully anti-corporate, grassroots movement, revved up on 1960s idealism and genuine fear inspired by books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the threat of pesticides to wildlife and the food supply. The event’s founders accepted no money from corporate interests and held anti-war-style teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”

Those, as they say, were the good ol’ days. Widespread coverage of Earth Day’s 40th anniversary last Thursday generally focused on how much has changed since that first planetary celebration. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day drew an estimated 20 million participants nationwide, transforming an incipient environmental movement into a fearsome political force. Legislators heeled, eventually passing the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which compelled fundamental changes in how U.S. businesses operate.

The most immediate and obvious problems of that time, rivers that caught fire and smog-choked skylines, have abated today, but new and arguably greater challenges have risen in their place. Foremost is climate change, a less tangible threat that is global in scope and not amenable to the more local solutions that have marked the environmental movement’s major victories. “We’ve cleaned up what you can see and left everything else in limbo,” Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, told the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein.

In the past 40 years, the environmental movement has been largely absorbed into the mainstream. Borenstein’s colleague at the AP, Frederic Frommer, summed it up nicely in an article headlined, ”From rebellious roots, Earth Day now mainstream”:

The movement capitalized on the experience and passion of activists who had organized anti-war, civil rights and feminist rallies in the 1960s. Today, the environmental cause is far more sophisticated, with thousands of environmental lawyers and advocates with advanced degrees and corporations rushing to advertise “green” products.

Some would say, in short, that the movement matured and became successful. But did it lose its ability to convey the same sense of focus and urgency in the process? The general taming, institutionalization and commercialization of the cause, its transition from college campuses and street protests to PACs, boardrooms and congressional committees, is reflected as clearly as anywhere in the special sections put out on behalf of Earth Day by two of the country’s leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The special coverage allowed scarcely a passing mention of the recent failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen or the fate of pivotal energy legislation in Congress, the pressing environmental issues of the day, otherwise extensively reported by the two papers. Instead, both focused overwhelmingly on The Business of Green, which was actually the name of the Times section. That they both chose to highlight economic opportunities brought about by current environmental concerns rather than an analysis on solutions for them is telling. “Follow the money” is good advice for chasing down government corruption, but it’s not the best way to commemorate the birth of the environmental movement.

The NYT seems to get this, judging from one story printed on Earth Day in the regular business pages apart from the special section. “On 40th Anniversary, Earth Day is Big Business,” is a story that lightly mocks the sillier efforts to capitalize on Americans’ feel-good green consumerism. Leslie Kaufman reported that F.A.O. Schwarz is showcasing “Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, ‘is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.’”

“This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green,” Denis Hayes, national coordinator for the original Earth Day, told Kaufman. “It is tragic.”

Despite that nod to reservations about conspicuous green consumerism, however, the Times is uncritically gung-ho for green capitalism, especially when it comes to energy production. The Business of Green lives up to its title, including a story about renewed commercial interest in, and public acceptance of, “carbon-free” nuclear power. It’s accompanied by a slide show called ”Nuclear Power: A Resurgence, An Opportunity.” A sidebar, ”The New Jobs in Atomic Energy,” acknowledges in one paragraph the licensing and financial hurdles that are explored reasonably well in the main story: “The anticipated work bonanza in nuclear power is no sure thing.” But the next paragraph claims “[t]he demand for a new generation of nuclear workers is driven by a combination of forces. The industry, to be sure, is set to expand.” Overall, the piece reads like an industry script written for a high school guidance counselor:

For the young workers, the promise is a stable career with excellent pay. They start at more than $50,000 in an apprentice program, and skilled technicians and operators with years of experience can make $80,000 or more. Nuclear engineers with four-year degrees can earn six-figure salaries.

But the appeal is broader, as well. “We tell these young people, and they understand, that they are becoming part of something important,” said Clarence Fenner, the work force development coordinator for the South Texas Project, a Bay City councilman and a former first sergeant in the Army. “This nuclear renaissance is important for our community, our state and our country. It’s not just a job.”

You get the drift of the section from a quick scan of the headlines. There’s a story on subsidies for solar power, venture capitalists looking to “sustainable agriculture as the next big ‘green’ investment”, entrepreneurial hydroelectric projects to harness the tides, and a complaint that stimulus aid for energy efficiency has been slow to get out, “but backers say it’s having an impact.” Finally, a story suggests a bright future for American manufacturing—again, thanks to subsidies—if domestic companies start building the parts for the solar and wind energy arrays, which apparently comprise the otherwise undefined “green economy.”

None of these stories provides real analysis of the extent to which these types of power production could reduce foreign energy imports or how much they might reduce the nation’s burning of fossil fuels; they are presented purely as business and employment opportunities, showing readers the green of money.

To its credit, the Journal’s special section has two informative columns that put the history of the environmental movement, its present challenges, and at least partial solutions into perspective. One, by William Ruckelshaus, who became the first administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, provides a nuanced look at the differences between regulating specific industrial, point-source emissions of yore—the target of the early environmental legislation—and the current dilemma, in which an estimated 85 percent of pollutants pouring into waterways have non-point source origins, such as city streets, suburban lawns, and rural and farm areas. His broad-stroke recommendation is not novel, but his experience gives it weight: “I believe we are going to have to make the substances that cause the problem (for example, carbon or methane) cost more. In other words, if you want people to use less of something, tax it, and then give society flexibility in achieving the desired reductions.”

A second column, by Arthur H. Rosenfeld, former commissioner for the California Energy Commission, presents one concrete, incremental step to reducing carbon dioxide emissions: painting flat roofs white in major cities from Sydney to Chicago would offset 15 billion tons of CO2 over 15 years, the equivalent of “turning off the entire world’s emissions for four months or about 40% of the world’s passenger cars” for the same period. The Journal also has a good story on the prospects for nuclear power as a “clean air energy” alternative. “Nuclear’s Fall – and Rise” notes the increasing embrace of nuclear energy among some environmentalists, along with the challenges the industry still faces, pending energy legislation or some other increase in the cost of fossil fuels, in competing with the relatively cheap electricity produced from coal and natural gas,

By contrast, the other news articles in the section almost exclusively take the economic angle on environmental questions. These include “Lessons From the Green Gold Rush” and ”Green vs. Growth: The Battle Rages On.” The lead story, “Why the Clean Air Act May Be Past Its Prime; Critics say that applying the 1970s law to today’s problems will stifle growth and kill jobs,” presses the fight over whether the old law should be applied to greenhouse gas emissions. A chief complaint in the story is that “regulators don’t have to consider costs when setting pollution standards,” but that complaint was amended in a “Correction & Amplification” after publication: “The Environmental Protection Agency is required by law to consider costs when developing certain kinds of pollution standards, such as emission standards for industrial facilities, but isn’t allowed to consider costs in determining national ambient air quality standards. This article incorrectly said regulators don’t have to consider costs when setting pollution standards.”

On the one hand, the Journal’s news stories pit environmental regulation against growth and profits; on the other, they highlight ways to make profits from government and consumer favors for green industry. It’s a very mixed message that gives scant consideration for the mission of the environmental movement or the stakes at hand. But the coup de grâce in the Journal’s Earth Day section is a short timeline titled ”Milestones in Green Consuming”—a celebratory history on environmentally conscious American consumer choices. It insinuates that the power of the market has driven the development of fuel efficiency standards, recycling programs, compact fluorescent bulbs, and the Energy Star program. Upon reading the actual text, however, you will learn that, with the possible exception of recycling, these strides in environmental stewardship did not flow from the conscience of the consumer as much as from economic incentives provided by EPA regulation or congressional action.

The business of green is an important story. Undoubtedly entrepreneurial innovation will be crucial to solving the pressing concerns of the environmental movement today, but the subject deserves a much more critical treatment than it received in the Times and the Journal’s special sections for Earth Day. The science, politics, and economics of climate change are complex and hugely consequential. Our best newspapers should do them justice, especially when granted an opportunity for significant public attention, like the 40th anniversary of the birth of the environmental movement.

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Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.