Why Earth Day needs a regreening

Earth Day 2012 finds public support for the environment sagging. Yet an eminent British thinker finds hope in the moral constraints of a love for one's local community.

Jamie Green/The Wichita Eagle/AP Photo
Volunteers from Boeing help visitors to the Wichita, Kansas, zoo sign their names on inflatable globes in an activity for Earth Day.

This year’s Earth Day comes with a faded shade of green.

The portion of Americans concerned about the planet has dropped significantly in three years (from 43 percent to 34 percent). People are wasting more water and buying fewer all-natural products, according to a Harris poll. Only a quarter now describe themselves as “environmentally conscious.”

At the same time, the percentage of Americans who feel “green guilt” – defined as knowing they could do more for the environment – has risen from 12 percent to 29 percent during the same period, another survey finds.

And, as one might expect after a recession, Americans have flipped their views and now see economic growth as more important than environmental protection, by a 49 percent to 41 percent margin, per yet another survey.

The most surprising report on public opinion, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveals that young adults, known as Millennials, have less concern for the environment than any generation of the past four decades.

This shaky commitment to the environment may have two causes:

One is that the issues, such as climate change, have become just too big and complex to comprehend. It was easy to stop littering. But give up oil and that SUV?

And two, after four decades of government action to protect nature and cut pollution, everyday folk simply take less responsibility for doing much on their own unless pushed.

What can be done to bolster this sagging support for this little blue ball called Earth?

One of Britain’s most famous philosophers, Roger Scruton, offers some hope in a new book, “Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet,” due out in the United States next month. He argues for a return to a love of home and one’s local community and surroundings, or what he calls “settlement” – and less focus on global schemes, coercive law, and alarmist rhetoric.

Environmental problems must be seen by “all of us in our everyday circumstances, and should not be confiscated by the state,” he writes. Once these big issues seem like our problems, then we can start to solve them with “our given moral equipment.”

“When problems pass to governments, they pass out of our hands.”

He sees small-scale civic actions tied to friendships and local connections as the best way to deal with the most fundamental issue: How to convince people – and companies – not to pass the costs of their consumption and pollution to future generations.

Or, as President Obama once described the problem, “We are borrowing this planet from our children and our grandchildren.”

Only when people are settled in a community and feel a spirit of cooperation, duty, and obligation will they start to respect the environment – and to sustain it for those to come.

Stronger communities based on a sense of place provide a moral constraint on individual ambition to pollute. Without it, Mr. Scruton says, the state rushes in to fill a vacuum, with rules, fines, and bureaucracy. Then individuals take less responsibility in conserving their habitat.

His idea of bottom-up solutions based on loyalty to place is bearing out.

Much of the action on climate change, for example, is happening locally, in states and cities, rather than at the federal or global level. Just look at the explosion of public bike-rentals in cities and state initiatives on energy conservation – despite the fact that 4 in 10 Americans say there is no proof of global warming.

Scruton’s book merely gives us the big picture, pointing out the trends already under way, such as the “local food,” “slow food,” and “local economy” movements.

When people stop treating each other as objects and form bonds of community, he proposes, then they will stop treating the planet as an object, suitable only to be used up for personal benefit.

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