On the Thursday before Easter, MPs debated our economic and ecological future. It was a highly unusual parliamentary event for three reasons:
Indeed the last speaker, Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett, said members of the public watching Parliamentary TV might be puzzled by the MPs’ behaviour.
READ MORE: Public tree planting celebrates Earth Day
Hopefully, the answer is our politicians understand at last how seriously we and the rest of the world is failing on climate change and deep sustainability, how big the upside is for tackling them, and how crucial collective action is.
Globally, evidence is piling up fast. Here, the latest analysis is the OECD’s 10-year review of our deteriorating environmental performance, and the report the MPs commissioned from Vivid Economics, which lays out our routes to a low carbon economy. The April 2 edition of this column discussed both nz2050.com/NZvivid2017.
Are we, and many other countries, about to radically improve our treatment of the ecosystem? If so, how might we secure this future?
This is uncharted territory. But global events 50 years ago offer a partial guide. From the mid-1960s on there were stunning examples of local pollution from industrial discharges, such as mercury poisoning of Japanese fishing communities, the near death of Lake Eerie, and the spontaneous combustion of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River.
In the US, scientists and activists raised public awareness of the escalating damage industry and consumers were doing. But the main advocacy groups were still conservationists focusing on protecting wilderness areas.
The public caught on quickly. On April 20th, 1970, some 20 million Americans, fully 10 per cent of the population, took part in marches, demonstrations, teach-ins, workshops and other events that day across the country.
Called Earth Day, it was the idea of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. An ardent conservationist, he urgently built public and bipartisan support for tackling environmental degradation.
While Nelson led with great vigour, his big insights were to hire young people to build the movement, to focus on public education on the issues, and to encourage communities to respond to their local problems rather than accept a top-down agenda from Washington.
The massive support for Earth Day launched the environmental movement, giving rise to powerful lobby groups, to greater consumer awareness through the likes of the first recycling programmes and non-phosphorous detergents, and increased corporate responsibility.
President Richard Nixon was no environmentalist, but he saw the political power the new movement was generating. Congress passed, and he signed, three crucial pillars of legislation: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Initially, support for these was strongly bi-partisan, corporate and public.
But by the late 1970s politicians had split again on ideological lines, with big government Democrats supporting regulation and small government Republicans rejecting it. These days, President Trump is trying to demolish the three pillars, with some states and many communities fiercely resisting him.
Likewise, some corporates see the benefits of acting on environmental issues but others became defensive. The motor industry, for example, has fought fuel efficiency and air pollution standards every step of the way. The public is similarly split between progressives and conservatives.
Despite these ferocious fights over the past four decades, the US has clamped down on local pollution from specific sources, cleaned up some degraded environments, and improved corporate and consumer responsibility – as have many other countries.
But these days the challenges are exponentially greater. They are truly global and interdependent. How we grow food around the world, for example, massively damages soil, water, ecosystems and climate.
Yesterday was the 47th annual Earth Day, which for many decades now has been a global UN event. But it passed with barely a murmur in New Zealand and many other countries.
Was the pre-Easter parliamentary discussion, though, the first sign here we might invoke the great powers of the first Earth Day to remake our relationship with nature?