Why I hate Earth Day
How a career in activism soured me on "raising the salience" of climate issues
In 2004, I was twenty-three years old and just beginning to give serious consideration to what I will do with my life. It seems like at least three lifetimes ago, but I distinctly remember seeing Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth when it came out that year.
A lot of readers won’t remember An Inconvenient Truth. Or maybe they think Al Gore is an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy from an obsolete past. Well, let me tell you: it was a HUGE cultural moment. Everyone talked about it everywhere, and back then these moments lasted more like three months, rather than our current 36-hour outrage cycle.
If you can imagine, this was before climate change had devolved into an outright partisan issue, before “denialism” became half the country’s defining posture. Heck, the GOP still had its own climate change proposal—cap-and-trade. Anyway, those were the days.
I was working as a journalist when the movie came out, covering politics for the Albuquerque Journal. There was a clear lesson for journalists here, which was that fairness and balance aren’t about both sides. If ninety-nine scientists say one thing and one scientist says another, the story should read, “The overwhelming consensus of science is…” and not “Some scientists say this, while other scientists say that.” I brought this lesson directly into my reporting.
But An Inconvenient Truth influenced me in other, longer-lasting ways:
It showed me climate change is probably the most serious long-term problem humans are dealing with.
It showed me that the issue is not going away in my lifetime.
It convinced me that I should devote at least some portion of my life to somehow helping to fix this issue.
Yes, all in all, the movie was a wake-up call. It had its intended effect.
And then everything went downhill from there.
In which I try to save the world
In 2006, I moved from Santa Fe to Washington D.C. I couldn’t find another job in journalism—the Internet was well at work destroying the news by then—but I did eventually find a job at a nonprofit working on climate issues. The idea was to take people’s donations to “offset” their climate impacts by investing in reforestation and renewable energy projects. I was the organization’s chief spokesperson, and it was a time of intense media scrutiny.
I was quoted in the New York Times Magazine. I was interviewed at length by Michael Smerconish for a radio show that reached millions (he sent in a donation after our call). I wrote and placed op-eds in newspapers across the country.
When Obama started running for President—you have to imagine this, because it seems so far away now—it seemed like we might have a moment to change things. Even if he lost, McCain also supported climate legislation! But it was clear our ability to make anything happen would depend not just on the presidency but on the Senate.
Oh, how history repeats itself. (Our memories are getting shorter and shorter but it’s ok because history is repeating itself on ever-shortening time scales)
When the press secretary for Congressman Tom Udall called and asked if I would come work on his campaign to turn a red Senate seat blue, I jumped on it. I became deputy press secretary for the campaign, we all worked our asses off, and we won. Tom Udall went to the Senate, and Democrats won a super-majority. Sixty seats.
I know, it’s hard to imagine, but it really did happen. Just think of it. Sixty seats.
I struggle to write what comes next because it’s all disillusion and disappointment from then on. Heartbreak and hurt. Idealism smashed into partisan oblivion. And I was right there in the middle of it.
After the campaign and the financial crisis, I found work at the Alliance for Climate Protection. This was Al Gore’s 2009 effort nationwide, “grassroots” push for federal climate change legislation. I was the state communications director for New Mexico.
I was happy about the work, but I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing there exactly. New Mexico already had two Democratic Senators now, Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman. Both supported climate legislation. What was I supposed to do, make sure they support strong climate legislation?
I knew enough by that point to know that Udall and Bingaman would vote for whatever the real power brokers hashed out, constrained by whatever it was the median Senator really wanted—and neither of them was the median Senator.
In the end, they never got to vote on anything. Obama decided that healthcare was a more immediate priority than climate change (isn’t everything?), and so the entirety of the energy in politics became devoted to passing the Affordable Care Act. A decent and worthy piece of legislation to be sure, but not what I was working on.
Then the mid-terms, then the loss of the House, and the rest is history.
In which I get fired from a climate think tank
After the collapse of the Alliance for Climate Protection, I took a job back in D.C., working for a climate think tank called The Worldwatch Institute. They’d made a name for themselves publishing annual reports by the lofty name of “The State of the World.” In the 70s and 80s the hippie climate press had waited with bated breath for each year’s publication, but in 2010 the think tank was well passed its glory days.
We still had a smallish, devoted donor base, but by that point much of our money came from the Ford Foundation, from China (yes, China), and from various small governments around the world who were drawn to our reputation and our research team (the Dominican Republic asked us to analyze their wind and solar resources, for example). And of course, we continued to put out The State of the World.
As communications director, it was my job to publicize all of this. Maybe it was the fact that my personal life was falling apart at the time, or maybe it was the actual substance, but I just could not square the impact of what we were doing with what we said was the impact of what we were doing.
Our rhetoric did not match the results. And I was the rhetoric guy.
In fact, working at The Worldwatch Institute permanently soured my opinion of nonprofits in general. It seemed no one was on the same page, and no one needed to be on the same page. Because each of the different departments was out to please different parts of the donor base. Long, interminable staff meetings went nowhere. One group was writing a grant to get more money from Ford, while another was writing the annual report that got sent to small donors. We told everyone that our work was saving the world, impacting climate change change in meaningful ways, making a difference, all that bullshit.
But we never made a real difference. We never impacted climate change in meaningful ways. I’d been a part of the activist community for years, and most of it had come to nil. Helping to elect Udall was the most impactful thing I’d done to impact the climate. But there were forces way bigger than me at work.
After 11 months working at Worldwatch, the entire staff was called into the conference room. The executive director hadn’t been there in weeks. He was apparently undergoing a mental health breakdown, caused in part by having run the organization’s finances into the ground. We were told Worldwatch might not meet payroll that month. We could continue coming into work—or not. It was up to us.
I continued coming in, arriving a little later and leaving a little earlier each day. After about two weeks, I was called into the acting director’s office. I was being let go.
Something about not bringing home the bacon, or where’s the beef, or some such metaphor for how I hadn’t brought enough attention to the completely ineffectual work that we’d been doing.
I decided to burn some bridges on my way out. It was 2011, and I was done with activism. I wrote an op-ed and sent it to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where I knew our donors would see it. I began:
Environmental nonprofits lack a compelling vision for promoting global sustainability, and without such a vision, they will fail to galvanize the support essential to protecting the earth from irreversible damage.
The current grand vision that has been promoted for years—that only through coordinated, unified, international global action can the world solve the problem of climate change—is intellectually bankrupt.
This has been a painful realization. After all, much of my professional life’s work has been devoted to finding and articulating such a vision.
Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is paywalled, but it goes on from there. I still have a print copy in a shoebox somewhere that I’ll look up one day.
I do wish activists well, but unfortunately today a lot of activists have completely lost their way and my respect. And they won’t get it back as long as they continue to do completely self-defeating things like argue against nuclear power, give “F” grades to Democratic climate plans, or chant “Fuck Joe Manchin” in parking lots.
Joe Manchin is not the problem.
We’re the problem.
Why we’re the problem
Here are some things about America, the country. These things are true about us, but they’re also true about most people in most places:
Most of us care more that our politicians do something to lower gas prices (thus exacerbating global warming) than we care that they do something to build more clean energy.
Most of us, everywhere, still drive gas-powered cars. Including me.
Most of us, everywhere, still heat our homes with fossil fuel. Including me.
Most of us, everywhere, still buy and consume food that is fossil-fuel intensive to produce and provide. (Including me, although I’ve dramatically reduced this in recent years).
Many of us, including me, take airplane flights multiple times a year.
I could go on, but you get the point.
A few months back I was reading up on my Wendell Berry. If there is an intellectual grandfather of the modern homesteading movement, it’s him. What he advocated was simple: take responsibility for your own economy.
He meant take responsibility for the things you consume. Your food, your energy. Most of us don’t really do this at all. Ordering a product from Amazon is the exact opposite of doing it.
I have tried, especially in the last four years. That was when the IPCC report came out on what a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature would do to the world (we’re currently on track for far greater). Within a year I had bought my home in New Hampshire, put solar panels on it, turned it into a mini-homestead of sorts.
I installed heat pumps, we have a large garden, we grow lots of our own food. We planted fruit trees. I’m am still trying, trying to figure out how to get off propane, mostly because it is so damn expensive.
I’m working on it. I’m working on taking responsibility, but it is hard, and it is expensive.
My son keeps wanting me to buy a Tesla (“It dances! You can play video games on it!”), and I agree, I should buy a Tesla. Right now the extensive Tesla charging network is the only one really capable of getting us back and forth from D.C. to New Hampshire without using gasoline.
But also even a used Tesla still costs north of $50k. Do I want a Tesla, or do I want my $50k? Right now, I want my $50k. I’m like a lot of people that way.
But this does bring me to a point that can’t be emphasized enough, IMHO. Getting out of the climate crisis requires building stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Like, with atoms.
Who here has done the most to get us out of this?
To me, the answer is obvious. It’s Elon Musk.
If I want to take responsibility for my own economy, as Berry advised, Musk is the one who has created the modern tools for me to do so. He created and popularized the most successful electric vehicle company in the world. He owns Solar City, which installs rooftop solar, and he created the Tesla Powerwall, the home batteries which connect the whole thing together.
For all his faults, which I could frankly care less about, Musk is building stuff. (My hot take on Musk taking over Twitter: it’s not worth his time)
I once read a piece about how Musk is not really an environmentalist—but he is concerned about existential risk and societal collapse, as am I. He’s building the things we need in case this collapse happens, right up to and including the rocket ships and the cybertruck. And wouldn’t you know it: building things to stave off societal collapse appears to be pretty freakin’ lucrative.
A friend of my brother’s once offered to give us a tour of Space-X’s offices in Los Angeles. On the wall in the lobby, he pointed to a big mural and told us that was the company’s mission statement. It looked like Mars, but it was different—it was terraformed. How’s that for a goal?
If I could make some small contribution, it will be because I built something. And I’m not talking about an app or a website.
This, too, I’m working on (more to come on that).
Earth Day epitomizes performative activism
Look, I’m pretty sure I get the point of having Days.
The point is to bring attention, raise the salience of, provide a rallying cry around.
Of all people, I get it. I’ve been in charge of raising salience. But raising the salience of climate change doesn’t seem to work that well, and hasn’t worked that well. It’s possible it’s even become counter-productive.
So yea, I really hate the social media posts with the pictures of the Earth, the Google Doodles, the corporate press releases, the political speeches, the marches. It’s all personal for me, and in case you haven’t noticed, in case you are too dense to get it, the personal is always political.
So make your personal decisions into ones that matter.
For me, Earth Day represents nearly a decade of my career spent banging my head against the wall trying to find a message, any message that could convince the people who needed convincing to do something. I’m convinced there is no message. I wish every activist would go home and plant a garden. A garden takes a lot of hard work, and I’m sure a lot of these activists don’t know what that is and don’t know that shouting Fuck You Joe Manchin doesn’t count.
Anyway, I was done with activism then, and I’m still done with it.
Have you ever heard of Secret Congress? Secret Congress is what gets most things passed. It’s what keeps government working, when it does work. It’s what got us a bipartisan, pretty progressive crime bill during the Trump years. Secrete Congress got us the FAST Act (infrastructure) during Biden’s term, the reform of No Child Left Behind during Obama, and countless other policy wins over the past decade.
I’m increasingly convinced that Secret Congress is where climate change legislation will happen, if it ever does happen. It’ll be behind closed doors, out of the limelight, and it’ll happen frankly despite the help of activists.
In the meantime, I’ll be driving my 35 mpg Honda and doing what I can to make gains around the margins. Doing what I can to take some small responsibility for my economy, even knowing that it’s not enough.