Green's generation gap

Why tweets won't save the planet.

By Phil Primack
April 17, 2011

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Ah, Earth Day. When green’s calming nature refreshes your soul and its relentless marketing debits your bank account. How different it was during Boston’s first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. That massive call to environmental arms saw teach-ins on several campuses and “a purification rite” to clean the Charles River. More than a dozen demonstrators were arrested during a Logan International Airport “die-in” to protest the air-polluting supersonic jet. Organizers even got motor vehicles banned for the day from Kenmore Square to Government Center.

Earth Day has since become a product-placement bonanza of “green living” festivals, cleanup campaigns, and special events. Violins for the Planet, for instance, is holding a concert at Emmanuel Church in Boston. An “ethical apparel” company has an Earth Day Gala & Fashion Show. Nothing’s wrong with such activities, especially if they unplug people from their phones and make them more aware of nature, even if just for a few hours. And unlike 1970, when tons and tons of paper and other Earth Day detritus went right to the dump, ubiquitous blue recycling bins show how the environmental movement has become ingrained – and how it has morphed into a genteel predictability.

The fires that fueled the first Earth Day may have cooled, but the issues have not. Despite the deniers and the eyes-glaze-over jargon of cap and trade, climate change is real, maybe even irreversible. Newer coal-burning power plants are cleaner, but much of their fuel comes from decapitated mountains in out-of-sight, out-of-mind Appalachia. We import nearly twice as much oil now as 40 years ago. And supposedly safe and clean nuclear power can prove to be frighteningly neither.

In 1970, when I was finishing college, Earth Day fit into the take-it-to-the-streets era of social change, though a bit less angry than both the civil rights and antiwar movements. But it helped unleash a social and political momentum that led to, among other things, passage of the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts. That was largely because Americans, especially college students and other youth, insisted on action, not platitudes. They believed in collective power and organized protest. They stuck to it – and not just long enough to fill an afternoon with Tweets – and forced Congress to listen (just as it now listens to the sometimes ill-informed Tea Party).

Four decades ago, college students marched, occupied buildings, and got arrested and even shot to protest the war in Vietnam. We now have two wars, plus a third on deck in Libya. But massive campus protests? Students blocking traffic to protest environmental backsliding? LOL.

OK, I know some college kids are active. This weekend, for instance, a youth-oriented campaign called Power Shift 2011 is hoping to attract thousands of young people to Washington, D.C., where, according to the group’s website, they will be “demanding real change on energy and climate and refusing to stop until it is achieved.” Other young people participate in urban “environmental justice” causes, such as opposing asthma-inducing exhaust from buses.

But, on the whole, the Xers and Yers seem to prefer buying their activism a la carte, picking causes based on lifestyle. They buy arugula through their community-supported agriculture programs or volunteer on organic farms in exchange for pesticide-free broccoli. They drive hybrids and buy overpriced but “eco-friendly” cleaners and anything labeled “organic” at Whole Foods. Today’s generation is into social media – just not societal action.

“Many people in my generation don’t like to identify themselves with one group or be defined by one category, such as ‘environmental activist,’ ” says Sarah Kelly, 33, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance and a former staffer with the Boston Harbor Association. “We want more fluidity. The positive spin on that is that we want to be exposed to a lot of things. The negative spin is that our attention spans are a lot shorter than our parents’ generation.”

Those parents who remember the urgency of the first Earth Day aren’t getting any younger. Nor are the leaders and sustainers of major conservation organizations. The green movement is turning gray, but today’s young people have not stepped forward to become the stewards of a revived environmental movement. Maybe we should just give April 22 a new moniker: Me Day.

Phil Primack is a Medford-based writer and editor. Send comments to