The American environmental movement emerged out of the late 1800s, when a few visionaries like Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Teddy Roosevelt decided that America's mad rush to tame the wilderness and conquer the continent from sea to shining sea had gone too far. They weren't always in synch, the early conservationists — Muir thought wilderness should be left alone, and Pinchot, the first director of the National Forest Service, thought forests should be managed to improve the lives of people. But the early battles all followed a basic underlying theme: it was about taking land out of private hands and putting it into the public sector.
They didn't always talk about it that way, but when you follow the great philosophical and political arguments of the day, that's what it came down to. The mining, logging, and ranching interests (and land speculators, like Pinchot's father) wanted the federal government to keep its nose out of the great forests, plains, mountains, and deserts. Roosevelt realized that the only way the land would be preserved for future generations was to nationalize it — and he fought mightily to do it. (In 1907, Roosevelt designated 16 million acres of land as national forests minutes before Congress voted to suspend all future acquisitions.)
That's something the modern environmental movement has lost sight of in the past couple of decades. Some major enviro groups in California supported energy deregulation in the 1990s, arguing that the private sector could do a better job of managing sustainable electricity generation (that worked out well). Respected green leaders like Adam Werbach argue that they can convince giant corporations to make the planet more sustainable. When you hear about solar energy projects at the governmental level these days, the discussion is all about public-private partnerships.
Now, I'm not going to argue that all business is evil, or that there's no way to combine profit and environmental consciousness. But in the end, economist Robert Reich is correct: private corporations are accountable to their shareholders and the bottom line — not to the public good. That's how it's always going to be.
Which means that, in the end, saving the planet is going to be a public-sector responsibility. It's going to be about strict regulations, about public control of essential resources, about changing the way we think about energy (it's now a commodity to be sold instead of a public service), and about maintaining and increasing the amount of land that's permanently owned and operated by the public.
That's my message for Earth Day 2011.