Environmentalism 2.0: Young People Lead the Way

by Tristanne Davis, Occasional Contributor

The Takeaway:Today is Earth Day, and the environmental movement needs young people more than ever. We can help reignite constructive activism by inspiring and engaging the public in bipartisan ways that promote sustainable development thinking and action directed to public policy, business, and individual lifestyle choices.

Forty-three years ago today, we celebrated Earth Day for the first time. On April 22, 1970, approximately 20 million young people in the United States participated in rallies across the country to praise the earth and protest environmental degradation. To this day, that first Earth Day demonstration remains one of the largest political actions in the nation’s history.

Four decades later, we struggle to reconcile the meaning and purpose of Earth Day with a new kind of environmentalism in the face of the extraordinarily daunting environmental challenges that confront us in 2013.

Back in 1970, there was bipartisan support in Congress for environmental measures. Republican President Richard Nixon declared, “The ‘70s will be the environmental decade” and under his leadership the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and landmark legislation such as the  1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and 1970 Clean Air Act were passed.[1]

The momentous success of environmental action undeniably had much to do with the widespread popular support for environmental protection at the time. Pollution was a very apparent national problem, demonstrated for example when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted with oil-soaked debris that it caught fire in June 1969. The obviously poor condition of the environment angered the public and motivated large-scale involvement in the launching of the environmental movement.[2]

Mainstream media further set fire under the movement by publicizing it for the world to see. CBS News covered the 1970 Earth Day event with a Special Report called Earth Day: A Question of Survival and featured news correspondents from all across the country.[3] Public opinion was set in favor of environmentalism.


Today, environmental problems are much more complex: climate change; depleted fisheries; unusable land; water shortages; and energy security. The complexity of today’s environmental challenges elevates them to high-level policy status that requires lobbying the government and business for positive action.

Unfortunately, today’s environmental lobbies do not have enough angry voters behind them to meaningfully influence public policy. Partisan divisions in government, the corrosive influence of corporate lobbyists, and the rise of the modern anti-government right in American politics—all of these and other toxic forces paralyze federal action and hinder the environmental movement.

In addition, the mainstream media generally neglects many of the grassroots initiatives that do take place—for example, there was little coverage of the Forward on Climate rally held on February 17th that drew more than 40,000 people to Washington D.C. Unlike the 1970s, environmentalism no longer is a unifying movement. Rather, people have taken sides and ossified into their ideologies. From this perspective, the environmental movement is a far cry from the bipartisan activism that took the world by a storm forty years ago.


Nowadays, young people can play a very important role in shaping the environmental movement and transforming it into unifying force rather then a source of division. Environmental activism today requires embracing mass information and communication technology, which enables the sharing of ideas and access to information on a global scale.

There currently is a whole network of movements taking place that are connected through online organizing communities which bring together youth on college campuses and in communities across the country. These online campaigns shed new light on grassroots organizing.

Online organizations such as 350.org and the Energy Action Coalition provide information and resources for environmental campaigns and serve to bring together activists from around the world. Campaigns for climate change action such as Forward on Climate and Power Shift are largely organized online.

There also is a student-led fossil fuel divestment campaign which has 260 campus participants around the country that have launched student- or faculty-led divestment campaigns, linked together by a virtual network of university activists, with support from a number of local and national organizations including the Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC), 350.org, and the New Economics Institute.

My generation’s environmentalism acknowledges the important role of technology, government and business in addressing increasingly complex environmental issues instead of villainizing them as they did in the 1970s. These movements also recognize that young people need to play a role in pioneering solutions and implementing programs in their communities rather then simply waiting for elected officials to act on environmental challenges.


Sustainable development has become the mantra of the new environmental movement. Sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[4]

Environmental activists in the 1970s largely believed that economic growth was not sustainable and that industrial activity could not continue without severely depleting the planet’s resources.

Modern environmentalists believe it is possible to reconcile the needs of people with the needs of nature. The agenda of the new environmental movement seeks to make economic development maintainable rather than deviate from it and suggests that economic and environmental priorities are compatible.

Environmentalism in the context of sustainable development has the potential to lead society to develop in a way that addresses the world’s food, energy and economic challenges in an integrated manner. However, sustainable development has an inherent contradiction in that it is still driven by the market in the same economic-growth-has-no-limits paradigm.

When no trade-offs are involved, sustainable development is about the struggle to support the growing billions of people with increasingly meat-rich, energy intensive, and materialistic lifestyles. In this way, sustainable development has enabled individuals, government and business to incorporate the rhetoric of environmental reforms, but it has not changed their priorities.

Effective environmental activism will address this issue and work towards facilitating collective commitment to changing lifestyles and true sustainability and avoid “green-washing.[5]

Young people today play an essential role in shaping the global conversation on sustainable development. Many of the current youth-based movements attempt to look at sustainable development from a “whole systems” perspective that strives to manage environmental and economic problems in an integrated way.

The campaign for the green economy is youth-led campaign that brings young leaders together to organize across issue lines and build a sustainable economy.

The New Economics Institute works with 14 college campus groups across North America to host “strategic summits on a new economy” and infuse demand for a people-centric, rather than profit based, economic system. These movements advocate new economic systems and consciousness that transcend the growth-based model we have followed up to this point. This is essential to the success of the environmental movement.

Whole-systems thinking requires more than environment rhetoric integrated into traditional economic models. It requires awareness of the importance of interconnections, relationships, and consequences. It involves eco-consciousness at the grassroots level, which defined the environmental movement in the ‘70s.

If the environment is allowed to become simply a question of policy choices rather than lifestyle decisions made by individuals, sustainable development will have taken the environmental agenda out of the hands of environmentalists and enabled it to be manipulated and shaped by political and economic interests.

The path to sustainability and the hope of Earth Day is that environmentalism becomes a force for real change in society. In order for this to happen, it will have to re-capture the public’s imagination.


Tristanne Davis is a young professional living and working in Washington DC in environmental consulting. She currently works at Abt Associates, a social policy research organization, with responsibilities for projects in environmental justice regulations, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and environmental cost-benefit analysis. She plans to pursue a Masters degree in sustainable development.

[1] [Editor’s Note: You can see a timeline of environmental milestones of EPA History on its website at http://www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/epa-history.]
[2] See “The Modern Environmental Movement” timeline fromAmerican Experience, WGBH Boston at  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/earthdays/.
[3] A transcript of that broadcast can be viewed at http://www.nelsonearthday.net/collection/422-CBSspecialtranscript.htm.
[4] See “What is Sustainable Development?” from the International Institute for Sustainable Development at http://www.iisd.org/sd/
[5] See “Greenwash Fact Sheet” at CorpWatch, 22 March 2001 at  http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=242


This entry was posted in Climate Change, Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.