The great green bandwagon that came of age this Earth Day has been a very long time coming. Its lag time has been no accident.
From Rachel Carson’s 1963 Silent Spring and Earth Day 1970 and the first arrests at the Seabrook Nuke in 1976 and the decades of writing and marching and organizing and fundraising, the landmarks to a growing green consciousness are epic.
The past fifty years have seen the rise of the movements for civil, gay, and women’s rights; for an end to nuclear bomb testing and atomic power plants; for peace in Vietnam, central America and Iraq; for the right to open access and accurate vote counts in elections that cannot again be stolen, and much much more.
These national and global campaigns have been accompanied by never-ending battles at the grassroots, against Jim Crow, for equal housing, against local polluters, for paper ballots, and for an ever-growing range of vital causes that demand human attention if we are to retain our rights and dignity.
This on-going grassroots fervor is the essence of democracy, the lifeblood of our ability to survive and grow.
Today, another specific cause—this time the environment—has finally become fashionable.
But this moment has been long delayed by big corporations that profit immensely from the destruction of the Earth, and that intend to continue.
It comes with a classic hijack—the theft of imagery. It’s now the height of corporate fashion to be painted green.
Many companies have indeed come around, and deserve their new badge of honor.
But some paint themselves green no matter how much harm they do.
From Exxon to Ford, from Mobil to Monsanto, the world’s worst polluters buy fuzzy, feel-good advertising with an environmental message. Columnists and politicians who have pushed catastrophic policies like utility deregulation and the war in Iraq now genuflect at the media’s green altar. Without a hint of irony, some even claim authorship of a movement they’ve scorned for decades.
To be sure, we can be thankful for genuine progress. But some of this advertising costs more than what the companies spend to actually save the planet.
It is absolutely true that individual behavior is a core element of our eco-crisis. Each of us bears some guilt for our part in fouling our global nest.
We consume too much. We waste with impunity. So at its finale, Al Gore’s "Inconvenient Truth" rightly lists individual steps we can take for saving the planet. We all must do our individual part.
But the world’s biggest polluters have corporate names. While we individually do the right things by changing our light bulbs and riding our bikes, they will continue their eco-rampage as long as it’s profitable to do so and they can legally get away with it.
As important researchers and historians like Thom Hartmann, Ted Nace and others have shown, under current American law, corporations enjoy a wide range of supra-human rights. Their charters require no social or ecological services. They have hijacked the 14th Amendment. The economic system imposes no real charges for destruction of the air, water, food or public health. The legal system makes it hard, if not impossible, to levy the full costs of eco-chaos, and thus to bring it to a halt.
It is the tragedy of the commons brought to the 21st century. It must change.
We can all feel good about being more individually green. It does make a difference.
But we’ll never save this planet without also re-defining the nature of the polluting corporation.
Going green means no more business as usual. This Earth Day, the need for complete accountability, both individual and corporate, is the ultimate inconvenient truth.
HARVEY WASSERMAN, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA since 1990, is author of "Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030,"