Earth Day at 40: What is the Environmental Movement Thinking These Days?

Earth Day (TOMORROW!) is a world-wide celebration.  Some estimates put the expected number of people participating in related events this year at upwards of 500 million.  But there are few places where Earth Day means more than it does in my home state of Wisconsin.  Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, was a senator and former governor from our state, and he had a lot of company and strong support:  John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Frederick Jackson Turner are just a few of America’s environmental heroes who have roots in this state in the middle of America.

So it is fitting that the 40th anniversary of Earth Day should receive special recognition in Wisconsin with a major conference looking back at the last 40 years and looking ahead to the future.  The selection of speakers is impressive – from Fisk Johnson, CEO of S.C. Johnson (Saran Wrap, anyone?) and a fifth generation of that family, to Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord, Governor James Doyle of Wisconsin and Robert Kennedy Jr., well known author, environmentalist and one of the last public members of the Kennedy political dynasty.

Thanks to the generosity of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, hosts of this conference, I have been able to attend the entire conference as a member of the media, and for the next several posts here I will be summarizing the talks and conversations here as a way of trying to grab a snapshot of the current state of the environmental movement in the US.

Why does this matter?

I am a proud member and I hope faithful representative of what we in the movement like to call the “creation-care movement” – what my colleague and mentor Cal DeWitt helped to birth some 30 years ago through his work at Au Sable Institute.  Cal promoted, and continues to preach what he calls “Christian environmental stewardship” – an effort to respond to the environmental crisis out of and because of our faith as Christians.

However, whether we call it creation care or Christian environmental stewardship, this movement of ours lives in the context of a larger world:  A world of politics, economics, business, and academia – but particularly for our purposes here, the secular, non-Christian environmental movement.

There is a rich history of connections between the worlds of creation care and secular environmental stewardship, some friendly, some antagonistic.   Unfortunately, most of these relationships have not been comfortable, as illustrated by a Sierra Club factoid:  40% of Sierra Club members are also church members, but they are afraid to admit in church that they go to Sierra Club meetings, and at the Sierra Club don’t want to admit that they go to church.

I often think of our current environmental situation on earth as if we were all residents of a small town beside a river during spring flood season.  The warning has gone out – the river is rising, and we are all in danger of losing our homes.  It’s time to fill and pile up sandbags, and it suddenly doesn’t matter what church we belong to.  Our town is in danger – we have to work together for the common good.  I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that our world faces that kind of threat right now.  The creation care movement represents the church members in town who have gathered to discuss how we can help; the larger movement represents the rest of the town meeting down the street in Town Hall.  We can and we need to have our own discussions because our church members will listen to us (we hope!).  But we also need to be listening to and contributing to the bigger meeting going on in town hall.

So think of the next few postings as a report from Town Hall.  This is what our friends are talking about.  You will be surprised – and pleased, I hope – at what they are saying.