Earth Day 1970, Science March 2017, and the perils of “non-partisan” environmentalism

Dawn Biehler's picture

In his classic book Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, the geographer David Harvey recalled three very different expressions of environmental politics surrounding the first Earth Day. First, Fortune magazine published a special issue “celebrat[ing] the rise of the environment … as a ‘non-class issue’”; the issue included an invited editorial by President Richard Nixon touting the importance of protecting the Earth for future generations. Then, on April 22, 1970, Harvey witnessed rallies against resource depletion and consumerism led by mostly middle-class, white students on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. The following evening, Harvey heard another take on environment at a Baltimore jazz club frequented by African-American patrons. That night, “the musicians interspersed their music with interactive commentary over the deteriorating state of their environment … [the] lack of jobs, poor housing, racial discrimination, crumbling cities, culminating in the claim, which sent the whole place into paroxysms of cheering, that their main environmental problem was President Richard Nixon” (p 117).


Harvey’s story may be most immediately striking because of the dramatic shift in environment’s place in party politics since 1970. While Nixon and Democrats in Congress once competed for the “greener” reputation, today support for environmental protection is largely limited to the left side of the aisle. But Harvey’s main point in recalling Earth Day 1970 was to flag the wide social differences that shape definitions of environmental issues – differences to which Fortune and perhaps the demonstrators at Hopkins seemed blind.


This week’s March for Science – whose organizers partner with the Earth Day Network – along with much climate change activism today, in some ways recall the blindness to difference and privilege that troubled Harvey in 1970. There is a striking parallel between assertions about the political neutrality of environment in 1970 and the political neutrality of science (including science about environment and climate) in 2017. Historian of science Adam Shapiro has been conducting oral histories with March for Science organizers, participants, and critics, and finds that many supporters argue that science “should not be politicized” because it is simply the pure search for truth. However, other participants and some critics of the March have told Shapiro that this framing ignores inequalities of access and participation, particularly affecting people of color; science itself is already marked by a politics of race and class. Organizers have responded to these criticisms, but the discourse continues to reflect elitism and problematic color-blindness.


To see how the March for Science could perpetuate narrow and elitist environmental politics, we can look at participants’ framing of climate change issues. Most of the March for Science participants who have spoken with Shapiro name climate change denial as one of their main concerns. Many scientists and supporters call for the EPA to “listen to the data” on climate change – demanding action on the basis of objective evidence. But I have heard fewer scientists frame climate change in terms of the ways it is already deepening environmental injustices that affect the health and livelihoods of people of color, around the world and in the US – for whom climate is embodied, everyday reality, not only data.


Apart from the science march, some climate activist organizations speak more to data than to embodied experience. For example, one prominent group calls itself to refer to the “safe” level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in parts per million. To be sure, 350 is an important number that should inform climate policy, and the group does speak to “climate justice,” but the measurement that it chose for its name has little meaning to lived experience except among an elite few. A participant at a recent academic conference I attended suggested that “I Can’t Breathe” might for many people be a more meaningful framing of broader issues of air pollution often related to climate change (unfortunately, I didn’t catch the participant’s name). “I Can’t Breathe” is one of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement, quoting the dying words of Eric Garner, a black man and asthma-sufferer, as an NYPD officer held him in a fatal chokehold in 2014.


The prospects for a successful environmental agenda seem much more tenuous today than in 1970, so it is understandable that environmental scientists and their supporters focus on claims of non-partisanship and objectivity. But lived experience of environmental change is another facet of truth, and one that might speak to audiences who have seldom seen themselves reflected in environmental groups’ agendas – in 1970 or today.