After 50 years of Earth Day, ASU environmental experts see shift to grassroots activism

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, attitudes in the United States concerning environmentalism have gradually evolved from a focus on addressing pollution to a focus on protecting and nurturing our ecosystems. And as that transformation has taken place over the decades, two Arizona State University professors have been there to witness it all.

Joni Adamson, the President's Professor of Environmental Humanities in the Department of English and director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and Paul Hirt, a professor of history specializing in the American West, environmental history and policy and sustainability studies, shared their thoughts on how the country’s attitude toward saving the planet changed in an interview with ASU Now. Both Adamson and Hirt acknowledged that there’s been a shift in focus each decade, including in Arizona:

“In the 1970s, we were focused on natural resource conservation, sustainable land management, and we were pretty strongly committed to adopting policies to push society in that direction,” Hirt said. “After 1980, it’s significant that no new water conservation laws have been passed except laws to weaken that one (The 1980 Groundwater Management Act). Then climate change became a big focus in the ‘90s.”

Both professors went on to emphasize the importance of grassroots activism and warn of the dangers of over-relying on the federal government. According to Hirt, the legislative gridlock makes it pointless to rely on the politicians to solve problems. Hence, the local and coporate level are more important.

Adamson agreed.

“When you look across the nation, some of the most innovative response to climate change is happening in the cities,” she said. “For example, in Miami, where they cannot deny climate change because the ocean is rising and they’re seeing sunny-day flooding, we’re seeing a lot of innovative policy and infrastructure changes.”

They concluded by noting how important it was to be optimistic.

“When you walk into a classroom how can you not be optimistic?" Adamson said. "How will you get the next generation passionate and involved? We can turn this around in this decade. You have to have faith that this is the generation to make a difference.”

“Whenever I hear somebody say, 'The end is nigh,' I remember all the times in history that has been said with great conviction and they were wrong,” Hirt said. “The future will be what we make it.”

So let's make it sustainable.