She’s called “The Radical.” And perhaps in comparison with the other interviewees of the film, she may appear so. The Radical (Stephanie Mills) is just one of several voices contributing her story to the upcoming documentary, Earth Days, a film that recounts the history of the environmental movement from the post World War II development expansion through the social unrest of the 1960s to the organized lobbying force it is today. Along with the Politician, the Conservationist and several other interviewees of the film, The Radical, has committed to the environmental movement in her own way. But her contribution became her personal life mission: a class valedictorian who gave a speech on human overpopulation and vowed then to never have children, she now lives a sustainable lifestyle in rural Michigan—child-free. This is one powerful example of how a movement can have a transformative change on one individual, and through her, many others.
The modern U.S. environmental movement was spurred forth by Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring, photos of Earth from space, and other moments of rising ecological consciousness. This movement–social, political, and cultural in nature—led to teach-ins on college campuses and marches in cities, and even a countercultural exodus where consumerism was abandoned for resource-minimal back-to-the-land living. But as Earth Days describes, teach-ins meant to inform also rallied people around an increasingly political cause and Congressional representatives with bad track records on environmental issues were singled out and eventually voted out of office. Within the 1970s, the movement had become a political force, streamlined and organized.
Over time, however, the environmental movement has increasingly become just one among many special interests that is competing for the attention of the people. Yet in this frame of “environmentalism as a special interest,” the urgency of the situation is lost. While healthcare is receiving greater public interest than the climate change bill in Congress, if agricultural lands dry out, if entire cities have to be abandoned because of flooding, if storms and heatwaves become more frequent, and new tropical diseases spread northward, then providing affordable healthcare to all will be the last of our concerns. Simply quelling social unrest and resettling environmental refugees will become the preoccupation of the government.
As the documentary shows, the U.S. environmental movement lost its power in the boom times of Reagan and Clinton. But climate change demands that a new movement blossom. Simply changing lightbulbs, buying green consumer products, and trading in one’s “clunker” will not succeed in stabilizing the Earth’s climate. Instead the reinvigoration of the environmental movement will be necessary—not just in the political sphere, but in the cultural sphere as well. Right now, there are cultural norms on how we live that make Stephanie Mills’ declaration just as taboo today. But to stabilize the climate, actions such as vows to have fewer children, to live with no impact, and to devote oneself to passing truly effective climate legislation, will all be necessary. Environmentalism as a movement will have to rise up again.