04/22/2013 09:14 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Earth Night

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After 43 years of Earth Days, it is past time to contemplate the possible coming of Earth Night.

There is little promise, so far, of a coming "reverse polarization" or evolutionary leap that might prevent the piracy of our life support -- clean air, water, soil and healthy eco-systems -- nor much sign that our institutions will heed the warnings of climate scientists, and even the CIA, about the deepening eco-crisis. This is no indication among the dominant think tanks of re-thinking beyond the models of market or state capitalism, which mindlessly measure "growth" by stealing natural resources from future generations. Nor is there evidence that the power grab by corporations over democracy will soon diminish.

This is the dire context in which many, like NASA's Dr. James Hansen, assert that excavating the Alberta Tar Sands for the Keystone XL pipeline will be a "game over" for the climate, propelling humanity into a terminal and irreversible crisis. With Canada's liberal hope, Justine Trudeau, endorsing XL last week, with the growing appetite by the Chinese for Tar Sands takeout, with an apparent U.S. Senate majority favoring the XL project, the options before President Barack Obama are dwindling.

The "game over" concept means Earth Night. Its troubling implication for many is that we all give up on saving the planet or ourselves. That encourages suicidal depression, or perhaps a new wave of Beat existentialism, as the earth's energy systems wane. The "game over" concept is inflexible, leaving no space for resurgence, much less mundane efforts to strengthen everyday life. What are idealists to do if it is really "game over"? Or are we supposed to accept a global Jonestown? These are terrible questions to ponder, much less share with our children.

Yes, life will go on even after the game is over, but life will be more miserable and traumatic. Daily decisions will have to be made to mitigate the disaster, feed, educate and provide medical care for whole populations. The important missions will resemble that of the health teams in Albert Camus' The Plague. Dreams of utopia or environmental restoration will become unattainable, obsolete.

To date, the environmental movement's symbols have been polar bears, seals, butterflies and salmon -- all visible species tottering on the brink of extinction (we even had a charismatic tree-sitting advocate named Julia Butterfly). Environmentalists during Earth Night, on the other hand, may find the earthworm, the nightcrawler, more suitable. Like community organizers, they enrich the soil, toiling in darkness, avoiding the spotlight. If the earth is in decline, they simply work harder until there is nothing left to do.

If the nightcrawler is too distasteful an image, consider an alternative, courtesy an aged Buddhist monk I once interviewed in Kyoto. I wanted to know how the Buddhist philosophy could support social action. He stirred our green tea for a long time before answering in two succinct sentences. "The earth is slowly dying. In the face of death, we must act with compassion."

So even in the worst-case scenario, there is work to do, either to mitigate the effects of extreme climate change or simply to express compassion and solidarity. Since it is hard to precisely define "game over" -- how quickly, how pervasively, in what order, etc. -- it is also possible that "the game" might extend indefinitely, into overtime, so to speak. The "game" is not over with a State Department pipeline permit being issued; what Hansen must mean is that it is over if all the bituminous muck in Alberta is excavated, transported and used -- which suggests a more gradual timetable toward the unsustainable Night.

A comparison with the threat of nuclear war is perhaps appropriate here. For my generation, the expectation of a nuclear apocalypse was the equivalent of today's predictions of collapsing ecosystems. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the fear of immanent extinction was bone deep; the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that the Doomsday Clock was mere minutes to midnight. While some might argue that we are learning to manage the danger, the threat we face now is just as real. We are fast approaching midnight, even though the tragic realization of the consequences may be deferred. How will we forever manage to live on the brink of extinction?

The Possibility of Change

"Natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight successive favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification; it can act only by very short steps." - Charles Darwin

Assuming that we may have indefinite time before game over, let us consider the possibilities for action. Thought unlikely by most environmentalists, what if Obama surprises us by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline in a historic pivot toward a different energy future?

Obama's recent standing up to the gun lobby could be the model for a bold change in direction. Conventional wisdom, however, says he will issue a limited approval for the pipeline, guaranteeing a prolonged fight in the years ahead, while around the same time announcing new executive orders on pollution and energy efficiency that will make it impossible for new coal plants to be licensed, while winding down the lifetimes of those that exist. We can be sure that Obama's new appointees at EPA and Energy are preparing the options.

It is only speculation, but a connecting political link for Obama between gun control and climate control is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pumping millions into "common sense gun control" campaigns, and who gave the Sierra Club $50 million for its grassroots campaigns against coal. The Democrats have reason to worry about an independent Bloomberg-financed presidential campaign in 2016.

It is even possible that Obama, the Democrats and some Republicans will endorse a carbon tax -- a regressive market approach to reducing emissions, though one which could make a difference with tightened energy efficiency regulations. The New York Times' Tom Friedman, often scorned on the left as a Pied Piper of corporate globalization, has been an insistent voice favoring carbon taxes as essential to battling global warming. Friedman favors what he calls a "radical grand bargain" - carbon taxes corporate and individual tax cuts, public investments in education, and deficit reduction. Republican heavyweights like George Schultz favor the revenue-neutral option, with direct rebates of the revenue back to citizens and businesses. A tax of $20-25 per ton would generate some one trillion dollars over ten years and be an incentive for conservation.

Another option could be combining Obama's tougher federal regulations with green infrastructure investments in states like California and New York. That was the model in the 1970s when the automobile industry was saved by fuel-efficiency regulations they opposed.

At the very least, Obama "has made a huge down payment on a greener economy," according to Michael Grunwald's counter-intuitive book, The New New Deal. Just ten years after Bill Clinton proposed a five-year clean energy initiative that was considered "hopelessly unrealistic," Obama spent $90 billion on clean energy, and leveraged $110 billion in private capital with a one-year stimulus. The U.S. solar industry was on "the brink of death" before Obama's stimulus legislation, but it then grew six-fold in three years, along with a doubling of renewable electricity. By the end of 2011, the federal government financed the weatherization of 680,000 low-income homes and retrofitted 110,000 buildings. Whatever initiatives next come to pass, the measure for progressives might be how many new jobs -- and for whom -- will be created by a rapid transition to a Green New Deal.

While the crisis worsens and Obama's green stimulus suggests significant gains, those seem paltry in the face of the challenge, however.

Roots and New Growth

Al Gore wrote in 1992, "the maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective." Making it "politically feasible" to tackle extreme climate change remains the task two frustrating decades later. Though the environmental movement has long since approached critical mass, it has been foiled time and again.

Will someone like Gore arise from the present crisis? Could it be Gore again, beginning a campaign in 2015? Perhaps the younger Andrew Cuomo, who has been calling loudly and consistently for action on climate change? Or might Hillary Clinton awaken from her midlife centrism to lead such a campaign? Might there be a candidate as unknown today as Barack Obama was in 2007?

There must be a push from a national campaign to shift the center of gravity of political decision-making. Even if 57,000 Americans are arrested following a potential XL pipeline approval, a vacuum will exist the following day, which could attract a serious presidential candidate for 2016. The very threat of such a candidacy will loosen the hammerlock of the fossil fuel industry on the two parties.

The factor of presidential politics, beyond pressuring Obama, is hardly mentioned in the present discussions on the theme of "what happened to Earth Day?" The most vibrant environmental movement in America today, 350, contains a healthy disrespect for electoral processes; the 350 movement counts on direct action and divestment strategies to move the world off fossil fuel addiction. In the tradition of past campaigns to save redwood forests and stop nuclear power plants, their success at movement building has been admirable. On the other hand, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have little to show for their millions spent on electoral politics, except the worthy achievement of slowing the rate at which conditions worsen.

The Time of the Nightcrawler?

My own experience has been along two tracks, outside and inside. The first, rooted in deep ecological understandings and expressed in civil disobedience, is a broad renewable river in American history and global culture, the fountain of many great achievements. The second, arising from the first, is more like a climactic rapids that reconfigures the institutional barriers that stand in the way. The first Earth Day and the 1970s anti-nuclear movements were examples of the former. Indicators of the latter are Jerry Brown, Al Gore and the UN Earth Summits.

The theft of the presidency from Al Gore in 2000 destroyed the emergence of a genuine environmental presidency. Until then, the environmental movement was following the trajectory of many other social movements, from a spectacular birth to a march through mainstream institutions. Earth Day was an extraordinary expression of a new consciousness, at a time when photos from space first revealed the beauty -- rapturous to millions -- of our fragile home in the universe. Yes, Earth Day required organizers, people like Denis Hayes and Senator Gaylord Nelson among the committed few, but it was self-organized in its very nature. The roots of the 2000 Gore candidacy lay in the original Earth Day, a movement co-opted early and successfully by the Nixon administration and conservatives fearing its radical threat.

The Nixon administration and corporate America took charge of managing the politics that followed Earth Day. They accepted a reformist model of stewardship -- far better than plunder, but far less than the rising spirit of kinship that millions were feeling toward their earth home. They engineered significant legislation: the Clear Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Endangered Species Act. Though isolating themselves quite well, radicals were institutionally isolated from leadership of the movement.

The first hope for a radical political shift in politics from Earth Day came in the successful California gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown (1974). He immediately opened his doors to Earth Day visionaries, blocked the expansion of nuclear plants and an LNG terminal, and launched an unprecedented push toward energy efficiency and renewables. Brown was ahead of his times nationally, however, representing constituencies of the future against the dinosaur lobbies of the present. He was too "weird" for the national elites, including the Clinton Democrats. Jimmy Carter took up Brown's conservation themes during his one-term presidency (perhaps to block Brown's possible campaign against him). But Carter, like Brown, was frowned upon for being outside the national corporate-labor consensus favoring growth. Both leaders eventually fell to the counter-movement symbolized by Ronald Reagan, and the Democratic Party slipped back into its familiar model of political economy, in which environmental costs were treated as mere "externalities", and failed.

For a time, both parties opened safe channels inside the institutions for a growing culture of non-government organizations that specialized in advocacy before judges and regulators, and lobbying politicians whose staffs they sometimes joined. They adopted wherever possible a "win-win" model of partnerships between environmental advocates and companies like Duke Energy, BP and General Electric. They raised funds from wealthy liberals for candidates to their liking. Their budgets rose to the tens of millions.

From these organizational roots came the draft climate bill - the "US Climate Action Partnership" - which passed the House on a partisan vote in 2009, stalled to death in the Senate, never to be raised in Congress in the subsequent years.

A recent New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann, based on two in-depth studies of the environmental movement, blames "the inside game" played by environmental organizations "at the expense of broad-based organizing" for the failure to much advance the movement against global warming since Obama's election in 2008 and, by implication, for decades since the Nixon legislation four decades prior. As evidence, Lemann points to an inability to pressure Senate Pro Tem Harry Reid to bring the House bill to a 2010 vote on the Senate floor, which Reid agreed to do in the recent case of the gun control package.

Having repeated what many others have said about the DC-based environmental bureaucracies, Lemann does not offer much new in the way of solutions. He cites the study by Harvard globalization expert Dr. Theda Scokpol who argues, "reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats."

Scokpol's is a withering intellectual critique, unfair in some ways to the environmental NGOs. She says the environmentalists should build "federated" chapter-based national networks starting at local and state levels, which sounds like a neat version of what many environmental groups have already attempted to do. She opposes the obsession with market-based cap-and-trade, and instead suggests a "cap and dividend," another market model but one based on consumers pocketing the revenue from low-carbon products, thereby creating a bottom-up market that might win favor with Republicans.

But none of these analyses suggest an alternative to the two pathways already carved by history: a radical awakening expressed through civil disobedience and boycott campaigns, or a complementary political awakening like the one that carried Al Gore to an majority of votes for an environment-centered presidency, only to be snatched away by the Supreme Court.

This is not 1992, nor 2000. Awareness of the climate crisis is both broader and deeper; its connection to our economic recession still requires further public explanation and coalition building. A new environmentally aware generation has risen to influence globally. Where my generation was compelled to overthrow apathy toward the scandal of racism and impending threat of nuclear war, the challenges before this new generation are arguably worse: entrenched inequality, disappearing jobs and economic opportunities, and widespread helplessness at reports of the end of a habitable planet.

What happened to Earth Day? It accomplished great things, then receded and was folded into the labyrinths of its success. We lost the chance to experience and test our first -- and the world's first -- environmental presidency. We lost a generation's greatest opportunity.

But movements and leaders always rise again, if only because of the creative and adaptive intelligence of evolution itself. We are the agents of natural selection and, even as we imagine apocalypse, we should heed Darwin's careful words: that we act only by "accumulating slight successive favorable variations"; that we can produce "no great or sudden modification"; that change is achieved only "by very short steps."

If Darwin is misunderstood, it may be the interpretation that natural selection is an objective force outside human nature, rather than one acting through human agency. It is natural then that we try and fail; natural, too, that we breed mutations; natural that we struggle and compete for life. According to Aldo Leopold, we are evolving toward an Evolutionary Ethic, a more cooperative one. We will see. The darkest hour is before the dawn. We may still end the Night.