The modern environmental movement is traced back to the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring in 1962 which gave impetus to the budding ecology movement in the 1960s that culminated with the first ‘Earth Day’ on April 22, 1970.
Major ‘Earth Day’ remembrances and celebrations were held in 1990 and in 2000, and smaller gatherings in many countries have been held annually thereafter.
Prior to the big 20th anniversary event in 1990, I distinctly recall an excitement and sense of optimism amongst my progressive friends and acquaintances who were environmentally conscious. It appeared to us that the shift in consciousness that we had always hoped for was finally happening. Environmental destruction was finally getting the press and the attention that it deserved. At the health food store where I was working, we were phasing out all plastic bags and encouraging people to ‘bring your own bag.’ Taking advantage of the increased attention and momentum, we tried to make our little store as eco-friendly as possible. We imagined, or at least I imagined, that within a decade plastic shopping bags would be a thing of the past, a relic of ignorant bygone era.
I can look back on my naiveté during that time with a certain amusement now. I had vastly overestimated the average person’s concern for the environment and had in a sense projected my own growing awareness onto the greater whole. Furthermore, in a war between environmental protection and the ever increasing needs of growing economies, the environment will always lose out. The capitalist corporate machine knows no boundaries.
In advanced first-world economies such as the United States and Western Europe, where the educated class has been exposed to preservationist ideas, things such as littering out of the car window and burning your plastic trash in the yard are frowned upon and can even incur a hefty fine. In the developing world, it’s a different story altogether. Tossing your rubbish out of the car or bus window onto the roadside is normal and not seen as anything ‘bad.’ In South America, some roadsides I saw were heaped so high with garbage that you had to cover your nose when driving past. I remember once taking a bus through a beautiful, pristine mountain park in Ecuador, and the woman next to me casually threw her entire lunch, wrapped in numerous plastic bags, out the window into the wilderness.
Here in Southeast Asia, the ethic is the same. Outside of a few tourist areas, public trash bins are few and far between and people are raised and taught to ‘just toss it.’ The city governments hire thousands of street sweepers to keep the city free of rubbish, but a good amount of trash of course ends up getting washed into the waterways.
The deeper underlying issue is not whether or not the trash thrown onto the thoroughfares will get swept up and thrown away, but whether people can unlearn the dysfunctional habits they have repeated from a young age. When you venture into the countryside where there are no street sweepers, the ingrained habits manifest and people still toss it onto the ground, where the trash, if it doesn’t get washed into the rivers, will stay for millennia.
For developing countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Viet Nam, Indonesia and so many others, environmentalism is not a serious issue. It may be given occasional lip service by government ministers, but the name of the game is industrialization and ‘development’- at all costs. Build and develop now, clean up later. China is the poster child for this kind of thinking. I’m afraid it’s already too late for many who live there, judging by recent news reports on the unbreathable air in many of its major cities.
This model of ‘clean up later’ filters down from the top to the bottom sectors of society. The populace of most developing countries, being uneducated and lacking any ecological perspective, is simply left to deal with the environmental crisis on their own. They are essentially abandoned by their governments who only want to see increasing GDP numbers. Incapable of organizing and lobbying for laws for cleaner air, they simply don a primitive face mask in the hope of coping with effluent of industrial society.
And the plastic bags that I was so sure would be gone by now? They are more numerous than ever. The world loves plastic bags. Anything that I purchase, from a banana to a razor blade to a beer to a book, is handed to me in a plastic bag. I mostly refuse the bags, but my insignificant little act of eco-grooviness is pointless in the bigger picture. Nobody knows, let alone cares, why I refuse plastic bags. The shopkeepers and clerks just shrug their shoulders and go about their business. I try to inform and educate whenever I can, especially to my students, but the level of enthusiasm for environmentalism is low.
I’m increasingly doubtful that environmentalism can ever gain any real traction in this world. In order for it to do so, a global consciousness shift would need to occur. Change must first happen in the mind before it can be manifested physically. I think Daniel Quinn pointed the way in his books, especially in Ishmael. As long as we continue to carry around the mindset that Earth is here to be conquered and for humans to use it at our pleasure, environmentalism will be but a pipe dream and a healthy planet only a memory.