Earth Day 2023: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

I cut school in 8th grade to go to Earth Day.  I asked the School Authorities if I could be excused to go to Earth Day, but they said No.  So I cut school and went.  It was the first time I ever cut school.

Earth Day in Philadelphia, 1970. Independence Hall in the background.

This was in Philly and Philly had one of the biggest Earth Day gatherings.  I remember there were a whole lot of people and I was near the back.  Ralph Nader spoke among many others.  I know I got a program because I still have it. 

It was 1970 and there was a LOT of good energy among the kids I hung out with, and among kids everywhere.  It was probably the peak year of all the ferment that went on in the 60s and 70s.  There were antiwar riots all across the country.  Richard Nixon talked about Peace with Honor in Vietnam and sent troops into Cambodia.  More riots.  Kent State happened.  Nixon tried to stir up the “Silent Majority” against the kids in the streets.  But the kids in the streets were the children of the Silent Majority, so what Nixon stirred up was fear and anger across dinner tables, everywhere in America.  But somehow at the same time Richard Nixon was creating the Environmental Protection Agency and signing huge pieces of environmental legislation:  Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species.

There was a lot of ferment.  The thing about us kids of the 60s and 70s was that we were different, and we were going to make things different.  

And we have.  We’re in charge now.  We’re in our fifties and sixties.  We are the people with power, the bosses, the people running the government and big companies.  We have made things different.

We have made them worse.

We are squeezing out of existence America’s greatest achievement, a society built on a large and secure middle class.  We are implementing policies that make the richest among us even richer, while the middle class shrinks and slides backwards.

We are spending trillions of dollars on “Defense” in ways that make Vietnam look cheap and smart in comparison.  Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could at least argue that Vietnam was part of a global power play.  But Iraq?  Afghanistan?  Given the keys to the Pentagon, my generation has wasted trillions of dollars, made enemies around the world, and left the U.S more impoverished and less secure.

We are spending money and running up debt at a pace that staggers imagination.  Government debt.  Corporate debt. Personal debt.

We are replacing a credo that greed is something to guard against with one that greed is good – the greediest are the most “successful”.  We have systematically dismantled regulations that have kept personal and corporate greed in check.  The winners are the greediest among us; the losers are everyone else.

We are condoning, often encouraging, often doing it ourselves, the destruction of rain forests, depletion of oil, exhaustion of resources, extinction of species.  We are implementing policies that promote the consumption of Earth’s resources as if they are ours and no one else’s, now and forever, and will never run out.

(Used to be a) Rainforest, Brazil

We are denying that humans can have and are having an impact on the global environment and climate, even as the evidence presses in on us from all directions.  We are dithering while the Earth is heating up.

In 1970, I and the kids I hung out with and the kids at Earth Day and the kids marching against Vietnam were pretty sure we knew who was the enemy.  It wasn’t the Vietnamese.  It was boring, greedy, self-absorbed, complacent middle-aged people who could justify any wrong, as long as it didn’t interfere with their comfort and self-indulgence.  We were right.  That was an enemy worth fighting.

What we didn’t know was who we’d become.  Fifty years on, the enemy is us.

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