The darker side of Earth Day


I know, Earth Day is supposed to be a day for optimism, a day to express hope that humankind will see the green light and transform its unsustainable ways.

But me being me – I have a tendency to find the dark lining in just about every silver cloud, I’m just not in the mood for optimistic, Pollyannish declarations about how great the future’s going to be.

Indeed, right at this very moment – and I’ll admit that my own inability to add an electric car to our home solar equation has something to do with my somber mood — I’m not particularly optimistic enough people, especially enough Americans, are going to recognize that our current lifestyle is unsustainable and that, poof, we’ll suddenly and miraculously leap into a green future where everyone’s driving on sun.

So, what’s the dark lining to Earth Day 2012 Silver Cloud?

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Pollution concerns at lowest
A recent Gallup poll which shows Americans are less concerned than ever about water and air pollution. According to Gallup, it’s been pretty much all downhill for the last decade in the U.S. in terms of Americans caring about water and air pollution.

Concern about water pollution peaked in 2000 at 72 percent of Americans polled compared to 48 percent of those polled in 2012. Same is true on the air pollution concern front. In 2000, 59 percent of Americans said they were worried a great deal about air pollution. Compare that to just 36 percent of those polled by Gallup in 2012.

Gallup offers a bit of a speculative explanation for the drop in concern with the primary explanation put forward being the economic crash of 2008. I agree with Gallup, but only partially. Clearly, the drop-off in concern about air and water pollution among Americans begins well before the 2008 economic meltdown.

My own speculative explanation is a bit darker than Gallup’s: Generally speaking, Americans don’t care that much about the environment, especially when compared to citizens in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany, indeed, in much of Northern and Western Europe.

Why the difference?

gray-hummer-bigAmerican individualism
Personally, I blame it largely on America’s overpowering individualism. Nothing – and I do mean nothing — is more important to Americans than their individual right to do A, B, or C.

Doesn’t matter a bit that one’s individual right to pollute damages the health of one’s neighbors, or, for that matter one’s own health, not to mention Mother Earth’s. Your right to do what you want, regardless of the consequences on other people and things, is what matters most to most Americans. Period.

No, our unparalleled individualism isn’t the sole explanation for the nosedive in Americans’ concern about air and water pollution. But it is a big reason for it – if there is a country in the world that is more fiercely individualistic than the U.S., please let me know, because I can’t think of one.

Indeed, America’s all-encompassing individualism explains why the false claim that environmentalism is too costly for America, and Americans, resonates so powerfully in the U.S.: ‘Don’t you dare take a penny away from me! That’s MY penny, MY money!’

A high price to pay
Never mind that the price — which is basically the health of all us and of all the living beings on earth — of any alleged individual savings is so intolerably high.

An optimist – and, as you know, I’m not one – might say that concern for water and air pollution has dropped dramatically in the U.S. during the past decade because we’ve already achieved ‘perfection’ on pollution control. No, come to think of it, I’m describing a Pollyanna here, not an optimist.

Basically, we’ve got a big pollution problem in America and an equally big problem in the fact that most Americans don’t appear to recognize or care about this problem.

In any case, a quick glance at the news, or even the local daily air pollution report where you live will immediately reveal that the claim we’ve gone as far as we need to go in terms of reigning in our pollution and our polluting ways is B-O-G-U-S. [Nearly 200 million Americans are regularly exposed to unhealthy air, according to the American Lung Association.]

Basically, we’ve got a big pollution problem in America and an equally big problem in the fact that most Americans don’t appear to recognize or care about this problem.

Is environmentalism radical?
That’s not a big surprise to me, someone who clearly fits in politically much more comfortably in Germany than in the United States – for crying out loud, environmentalism is still considered radical in the U.S. while it’s very much mainstream in Germany.

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No, I’m not leaving America. I love too many things about America, including its unparalleled natural majesty and wild open spaces, to leave it. I’m just not too keen on its anti-environmentalists, and I’m continually frustrated by our comparative apathy on environmental issues.

So, what to do?

Given the depressing decade long decline you can see in the Gallup graphic at the top of this entry, I’m at a bit of a loss of how to effectively turn American public opinion around on pressing environmental issues such as air and water pollution.

Any ideas or suggestions on this Earth Day 2012?

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