Jay Inslee is running for president to save the planet from climate change.
Most of you probably did not know that. Inslee is an arguably successful two-term governor of Washington, but is a second-tier (or third-tier) Democratic presidential candidate—at least partly because climate change is a second-tier (or third-tier) political issue. A recent poll found only six percent of Americans view climate change as the most important issue facing the nation. And the national yawn greeting the forty-ninth anniversary of Earth Day seems to confirm climate change's second-tier status. Even at CNN you have to scroll down pretty far to find any mention of it. The sleepiness may be misplaced—we are yawning over the $22 trillion debt, too—but it accurately reflects the sad state of environmentalism.
Yes, there’s the Green New Deal, but if not for the cow fart jokes it is doubtful Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s green dream would have maintained relevance for multiple news cycles. A senate show vote orchestrated by Mitch McConnell netted no “ayes.” The Democrats were content with a “present” vote to protest procedural shenanigans, but few seem eager to fight it out on the substance.
In some ways, Earth Day is the victim of its own success. Back in 1970, when the celebration was instituted, pollution was more visible. The bald eagle teetered on the edge of extinction. Factories belched dark smoke and lifeless rivers occasionally burst into flame. The Cuyahoga had periodically caught fire for decades, each time greeted largely with a shrug of the shoulders. But on April 22, 1970, a sizable slice of the country finally determined that rivers should not catch on fire.
Flip through The Environmental Handbook—367 pages prepared for the Environmental Teach-In (as the event was first known before some questionable but successful rebranding)—and you can still feel the intensity and desperation of that day. “1970s—THE LAST CHANCE FOR A FUTURE THAT MAKES ECOLOGICAL SENSE,” reads the back cover. An essay called “Eco-Catastrophe!” was one of Paul Ehrlich’s contributions. That fear of impending doom drove people to the streets for rallies and marches. The standard participation estimate is 20 million—around 10 percent of a nation then numbering about 200 million. Even if that estimate was exaggerated, pictures from the time show large crowds across the country.
Richard John Neuhaus, too, walked the bustling byways of New York that day, and was both impressed and distressed. The result was his first solo book, In Defense of People: Ecology and the Seduction of Radicalism. In it, he criticized the misanthropic elements of the environmental movement. Yet Neuhaus never denied there was a real reason for concern.
While Neuhaus’s response was nuanced, political tribalism has led the right to respond to environmentalism by celebrating excess and pollution. On his 1990s television show, Rush Limbaugh reveled in using a rainforest mahogany wood pointer as he taunted environmental “wackos.” More recently, visitors to the Conservative Political Action Convention could pick up an “I [Heart] Fossil Fuels” t-shirt. And while President Nixon responded to Earth Day by signing rafts of green legislation, today “Trump Digs Coal.”
Modern mountain-top removal coal mining rearranges landscapes on a gigantic scale, but it does so in rural places most of us will never see. Such detachment is typical. For an increasingly urban population content to visit a nice local park on those rare occasions we look up from our screens, today's environmental issues are too distant to arouse much passion. The landfill is tucked behind a hillside. The slashed forest where the tiger once roamed is an ocean way. The plastic dumped into the sea daily by the ton is, thankfully, cleaned up regularly on our favorite beaches. Today, there are no American rivers on fire, and even if China wants to turn the sky black while serving as the workshop of the world, who are we to stand in the way of its development?
Caring for creation is a niche concern among Americans and certainly among those who regularly attend church on Sundays—which brings us to Easter. By a quirk of the calendar, Earth Day this year falls on Easter Monday. Do these celebrations have any relevance for each other—or for anything else? Is Easter merely an ancient celebration for those who still cling to otherworldly superstitions, and Earth Day only an occasion for godless over-the-hill hippies to recall their glory days?
Or, does the progression make some cosmic sense? Is it just by chance that Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener, or does the re-creation demonstrated in Jesus's triumph over death serve as a sign of things to come for everything that was created and called good? Did God really mean it when He said all the animals of the Ark were to be fruitful, not just Noah’s descendants? Was Christ really reconciling all things, as Paul said? Was Isaiah correct that the hills burst into song and the trees clap their hands? Is the Resurrection really good news for all the world that God so loved? If so, maybe Christians need to join their hands in the work that the risen Christ is doing. Earth Day Monday after Easter Sunday seems a good time to start.
John Murdock helps direct the Earth Stewardship Alliance.