I was in New York City on Sept. 11, so recently I’ve seen a lot of things go up in smoke. First there were the airplanes, careening nose-first into the World Trade Center towers and — it seemed almost uncanny at the time — failing to emerge on the other side. Then there were the buildings themselves, billowing abruptly into oblivion. Less spectacularly visible, but adumbrated on almost every street corner (in the photocopied posters of the missing, in the businessman sobbing uncontrollably on his stoop), were the private dimensions of the tragedy: people’s individual lives and livelihoods and loved ones, here and then — bam — gone.
Over the next few days, as the ash and I drifted aimlessly from borough to borough, it became a commonplace that something less material but no less immense than the World Trade Center had also gone up in smoke. The media frequently called it our innocence, and the general public, either parroting or prompting the pundits, said basically the same thing. The consensus was that everything about America — from what liberties we enjoy to how well we sleep at night — had changed, or soon would.
That everything has changed is, in fact, the premise of this special issue of Grist; the theory goes that the changes wrought by one morning’s terrorist acts are so far-reaching that even a cause as seemingly unrelated as environmentalism must adapt in response. But if environmentalists are going to change intelligently, we need a more accurate assessment of what, exactly, has changed around us — and what has not.
So here are a few things that have changed: Nationalism has become a credible cause, even (and perhaps most alarmingly) among those who were previously lukewarm patriots at most; a president who was barely elected (if that) and who has gone after environmental and social protections with a vengeance since taking office is enjoying 90 percent approval ratings; Congress has approved $20 billion for additional defense spending, which sources on Capitol Hill are calling a “down payment;” environmental organizations, like many other ostensibly progressive causes, have consented to self-censorship by tacitly or explicitly agreeing not to criticize our national leadership; and, oh yes, we’re bombing the hell out of Afghanistan.
And now some things that haven’t changed: the root causes of the kind of desperation that breeds terrorism — politically sanctioned violence, plus lack of adequate food and medical care, and denial of other basic human rights — have not disappeared, nor has the political will to eradicate them suddenly materialized. Our self-interested foreign policy in the Middle East remains intact. Our leaders, and to a large extent the media, continue to use the simplistic language of evil and innocence to mobilize a national emotional response, while declining to address the causes of international anti-American sentiment. The public is still denied accurate and thorough information about U.S. military activities abroad. And a poll indicating that U.S. citizens are prepared to go to war at the expense of U.S. military casualties and foreign civilian casualties tells us all we need to know about what Sept. 11 didn’t change — unbelievably — in our capacity for empathy and our understanding of terror and grief.
So what’s an environmental movement to do? In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, environmental organizations, like the rest of us, suspended all normal activities. The Sierra Club pulled ads from the airwaves, the Environmental Working Group delayed release of a report on toxins in drinking water, and the entire marketing apparatus from website banner ads to PR flacks reiterated anodyne messages of grief and compassion. In short, a moment of silence descended over the environmental movement. It was a good response — certainly a far better one than the noisy jingoism that turned candlelight vigils into pep rallies in New York City and beyond.
But moments of silence are just that — moments. They honor the dead and the grieving and give us a chance to catch our breath, but they are by definition short-lived. Within days of the attacks, Sen. Frank Murkowsi (R-Alaska) tried to leverage fears about dependence on foreign oil into political support for his pet project, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This was not, obviously, a considered response to a radical political development; it was just a new way to beat an old drum. Disturbing? Sure, but two can play that game: John Adams, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained in an open letter that U.S. dependence on oil “constrains our military options in the face of terror” and that reducing that dependence is “the single most important thing that we, as environmentalists, can do to ensure America’s national security and environmental security.” Same story, new rhetoric.
Although my political sympathies lie far closer to Adams’s than to Murkowski’s, my feelings about their responses to last month’s tragedy range only from disappointment to disgust, respectively. I almost preferred the stunned silence, especially because something interesting came out of it — and went almost unnoticed, unfortunately. Directly after the attacks, a great number of people who weren’t actively involved in rescue work, or occupied with the even more immediate business of grieving, expressed a feeling of irrelevance, as if the work they did was not significant enough — not, somehow, quite the right work. That sentiment was shared by everyone from environmentalists (see for example last week’s Grist diary by New York City environmental justice activist Swati Prakash) to sports stars; one Major League baseball player announced that for the first time in his life he questioned the worth of his job and wondered how it contributed to making the world a better place.
Rather than squirming and straining to tactfully carry on with business as usual, the environmental movement should be asking itself those same questions and assessing its own relevance. It should be openly examining the relationship between environmental issues and international justice, human rights, and nonviolence. Building on alliances forged during joint criticisms of corporate globalization, its leaders should be calling acquaintances in the labor movement, the peace movement, and other left-leaning organizations in the U.S. and abroad to ask, How can we help lead a coordinated progressive response to these attacks? It should be outspoken rather than muffled; it should ask why resuming the World Series and primetime television is a courageous act of healing, but resuming principled discussion about tough political issues is divisive and disrespectful. It should not be shushing the rowdy, productive babel of democracy, and it certainly should not be protecting George Bush and his cronies from discord, disagreement, and disgust.
That is an environmental movement I’d be proud to be part of. Whatever naivety I may once have had disappeared long before Sept. 11, but I remain convinced that such a movement could exist. Contemporary environmentalism was shaped by two forces: the free-thinking liberation struggles that characterized the 1960s and ’70s, and a passion for the natural world that implicitly discredits artificial and unjust political divisions of the land and its resources. Together, the two should remind us that environmentalism cannot and should not be disentangled from the wider struggle for justice and peace.