EARTH DAY 2017: Time to Celebrate Good Work

Apr 21, 2017
The other day my family went to see "Beauty and the Beast." Before the feature started, there was a preview for "Born In China," a documentary about saving pandas, snow leopards and monkeys in China that opens the day before Earth Day, April 22. At the end of the preview, Disney said they planned to donate money from the box office for "Born In China" to the World Wildlife Fund. A lot of studios are environmentally conscious, but this is the first time I've ever seen one say that a specific group would benefit from screening of a specific film.

This April 22 the world will be celebrating the 47th Earth Day. The Earth Day website says that there are 192 countries involved in this year's Earth Day, which will include over a billion people participating in Earth Day celebrations. This includes a number of US environmental groups that claim about 15 million members.

Many environmental groups got started around Earth Day 1970. Eric Hoffer once wrote that "what starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation. These days many environmental organizations are wealthy businesses. They solicit donations with pleas to help them fight something or someone, and get money from all kinds of other sources, some good and others are questionable. For an evaluation of groups see the book Green Inc., for details. )

One bright spot is that while most environmental groups have little positive to say about hunting, WWF is supportive of some types of hunting, including trophy hunting.>link Maybe this film will help build bridges between environmentalists and outdoor sportsmen who are some of the most ardent conservationists.

The magnitude of this year's celebration moves me to reflect on the first Earth Day. In 1970 I'd just finished my Ph.D. in environmental psychology at the University of Michigan and I had experience producing concerts, so I became the lead faculty producer of what became the largest college Earth Day Teach-in with 50,000 attendees.

That program and others around the US brought together a wide range of speakers ranging from scholars and scientists to attorneys, activists and entertainers. There were arguments, but the general focus of the programs were to educate people about all environmental problems as existing conservation efforts focused on natural resources in rural areas, while toxic chemicals, solid waste, and serious air and water pollution were serious and being overlooked. I learned this first-hand as the U. of M. teach-in was a couple weeks before April 22, and so I was a speaker at 22 other programs around the US, and I consulted with a number of national organizations and federal and state agencies about environmental education.

"Pogo," cartoonist Walt Kelly caught the basic issue of the times when Pogo said about Earth Day, "We have met the enemy and he is us." People got that. Earth Day 1970 inspired many new laws and state and federal agencies, as well as environmental organizations. There was little or no opposition to hunting and fishing in programs of the first Earth Day.

Forty-seven years later we now have EPA and other federal and state governmental agencies and there are thousands of environmental groups. Some are doing good work, but others aren't trying to work with government agencies. Instead they're constantly fighting with them. This forces agencies to spend their time and money defending themselves, which hampers their effectiveness, and that makes them easier targets. Some modern environmental groups have become as much a problem as a solution.

In 1970 many of the pundits predicted horrible crises and inevitable disasters. If you do a Google search, you'll find hundreds of websites that show that most of the predictions made in 1970 were wrong.

This is one big reason why a 2010 Gallup poll found that nearly 40% of the public said that the environmental movement has done more harm than good. When asked why this is so, people said that environmentalists always talk
about crises that never come true and that they are always accusing people – especially government and/or private industry -- of doing things to harm the environment.

Polls show that if you ask if the environment is important, almost 90% say "yes." Gallup polls report that while most Americans say they're concerned about environmental issues, only 17% are active participants in doing something to make things get better. And if you ask them why, they say that they don't trust environmentalists and environmental news.

This has great relevance for Earth Day today, as many environmental problems of the l970's have been solved, and yet some environmentalist seem to believe that we need crises to motivate eco-action. While there certainly are some problems in the US, we now have global climate change and mass extinctions to worry about. Again these are predicted crises and future forecasting is always subject to unexpected events. "Crisis addiction" has become an environmental problem.

A 2017 Gallup poll found that many say that most environment problems getting worse while in reality many of the problems of 1970 are gone or greatly improved on.

Conservation scientist Dr. James K. Sheppard observes: "A pervasive culture of negativity in conservation will risk attracting only personalities that are overly pessimistic, instead of a healthy mix of hope and pragmatism."

A century ago the Conservation Movement was started by sportsmen like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, yet today there is an uneasy relationship between major eco-groups and those representing hunters and fishermen. Earth Day 2017 is supposed to be a celebration. Hopefully it will also recognize that the populations of many species of wildlife are at all-time highs, air and water pollution are much better nation-wide, recycling is commonplace, and that sportsmen's conservation groups are a major factor in these successes.

Solid research on what generates what Aldo Leopold called an "ecological conscience" is not so much news media -- which is 10-17 more negative and sensational, than positive, -- but positive first-hand experiences in nature.

And this is where there is a problem. In the l960's nearly 90% of the people participated in outdoor recreation -- today it's down to about 50%. This is one reason why obesity and drug addiction have become epidemic.

There are lots of good programs trying to help get more people outdoors, but access is a problem and while crime rates in urban areas are low, crime in wildlands is increasing. Very little is being said about this.

This Earth Day let's celebrate those groups and individuals that try to help governmental agencies as well as fight them. Let's not dwell on predicted crises and the need to have enemies. Substantial research conducted by the UC Berkeley Office of Sustainability on the most effective ways to encourage ecological sustainable behavior (>PDF) concludes that people should not use many fearful, threatening messages otherwise people will be turned off. We need heroes more than enemies.

On Earth Day let's give special recognition to those groups that are willing to celebrate conservation accomplishments, and are willing to accept that some of the most ardent conservationists are hunters and fishermen.

Will Disney's association with WWF usher in a new trend where groups of all kinds vie for endorsements from major film and TV studios? Stay tuned.

— James A. Swan, Ph.D