How did it happen?

I’m going to write something that may sound incredibly disrespectful, but I’m asking honestly. I want to know.

Often, when I lead workshops and I talk about things like building community, environmentalism, creation care, I have someone who perks up and says, “I did this too! When I was young, we had communes, and we didn’t flush the toilet, and we were all back to nature and everything….”

Or else, there is someone rolling his eyes, saying, “Right. We’ve done this before. This isn’t new.”

I fully realize that it’s not new in a historic sense. But as a person growing up in the seventies, a lot of what’s happening now is new to me. And so the thing that I always want to ask is, “What happened?”

I never quite do it, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone. And, of course, many people who were good stewards of the environment still are. But I’m talking about as a general rule… as a country, how did we get from Jimmy Carter wearing sweaters to Ronald Reagan increasing speed limits? How did we move from the VW bug to the Hummer SUV? How did devolve from organic farming to every chicken being injected by hormones and antibiotics? If we were heading in the right direction in the late sixties and early seventies, how did we make that massive turn to the wrong one?

And if there is a revived movement to care for creation, how can we encourage it and sustain? Is there any way to keep that wrong turn from happening again? 

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19 thoughts on “How did it happen?

  1. I suspect environmental concern seemed “soft” to the Reagan Revolution. That attitude of “we have everything and own everything and there is plenty of everything” seemed prouder and more victorious than a caution about turning the heat down and wearing a sweater. Who can say for certain what causes a shift in public consciousness? The lines at the gas pumps in the mid-70s raised awareness, but the failure of the rescue efforts in Iran turned people in another direction. Gentle, solemn self-discipline no longer seemed adequate. Decisive action, confidence–these became appealing once again. And the Reagan years showed Hollywood and Washington learning to live as one, perpetrating fantasies to garner and preserve power.
    It makes me shudder.
    But don’t underestimate the influence of one image of failure to turn the whole country. The Iranian hostage crisis feels like the pivot point to me. I was a college student at the time, getting ready to vote in my first election in 1980, and I remember watching the coverage in the dorm with my friends, Ted Koppel with the words “America Held Hostage” on screen, counting the days.
    I would love to hear what others think.

  2. Good question, which I haven’t thought about enough. But let me suggest: 1) the recession of the early 80s — years in which it was hard to find any kind of employment 2) easy credit — which created status items like big cars, big houses, etc as normative 3) Reaganomics 4) Clinton’s “monica-gate” which really crushed ideals. I’ll be curious to hear what other people think.

  3. I think it was a lack of realism. A lot of people thought we were going to change the world in the 60’s and 70’s. In fact, we did. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wouldn’t have been running for President without the civil rights and feminist movements that became so huge in those days.
    But when things didn’t happen quick enough or in exactly the way we wanted them to happen or major institutions like the government and religion were revealed as filled with corruption, a lot of folks dropped out of the “change the world” movements and joined the “collect as many toys as one can” movement. We lurched from extreme idealism to extreme materialism.
    I sense in the younger generations a much healthier, realistic approach to reality than we boomers had/have. Hopefully, you all won’t expect the world to change on your time table the way too many of us did. Evolution is a process.

  4. A person I knew that was part of the civil rights movement once said to me: “If everyone who said they had marched on Selma was really there the Edmond Pettus bridge would have collapsed from the weight.” Sometimes these nostalgic comments are by the few who actually participated in these movements. Yet, there are a lot of people who have revised their personal histories because they had feelings for something they saw on the evening news. I think that the people who were really into the environment in the 1970’s was a much smaller percentage of the public than a lot of the people in that movement want to admit. There were reasons that Carter did not win a second term. I agree with Songbird the image of failure was great. This had a debilitating effect on his re-election campaign. Yet, I also think that Carter’s speech to the nation on energy efficiency was poorly received and resoundingly rejected that it also contributed to his negative image.

    It seems that there is a huge amount of cynicism amongst our older generations when anyone mentions the possibility of change. I think that one thing that might need to be done is to convert these cynics and convince them that even if they think these things have been done before it is valuable for them to participate with a new generation in solving this grave problem. Yet, I am sure that most of the one’s who were originally part of the environmental movements are already receptive to any new movements.

  5. Tough one. I remember visiting an eco-commune in England as part of a school trip back in the early 1980s. Solar panels. Composting toilets. All that stuff. But people don’t like to sacrifice their own ease and comfort.

    The issue is, I think, that our innate human selfishness easily overcomes our idealism.

  6. I often wonder about this same thing, since I have conversations like this all the time. People of my parents’ and older generations always say things like, “you’re so idealistic–that will change” and “oh, we were the first to do that and look how it didn’t work.” I wonder if they realize that saying things like “we’ve already done that before” just shuts down and demoralizes people who are trying now?

    Anyway, I don’t know what happened (I suspect because I’m not old enough–I was born in 1980) but the net effect seems to have been to equate cynicism with realism. It makes me sad because I think it’s important to be realistic but also idealistic–to have ideals and to strive for them. If cynicism and realism are the same thing, we are in serious trouble.

    I’ll be interested to see how this conversation develops–thanks Carol!

  7. I don’t know about where everyone is- I can only speak about where I live- but the ones I see driving around in Hummers are my age, not boomer-aged. My guess is that there weren’t that many environmentalists in the 70’s than we think, like somebody already said. They just got attention because they were so unconventional. So now people that do it don’t get the attention because it’s already “been done”. My guess is that the percentages are the same, if not better now.

    The most environmental person I know is my 93 year old grandmother who was raised on a poor farm and then lived during the depression. She re-uses EVERYTHING. She even rinses out her sandwich bags and reuses them. Unless it’s falling apart, and even then, she’ll find a use for it. She also freezes all her leftovers, and doesn’t let any food waste. I think we just have too much at our disposal now.

  8. The church I grew up in was big on “dominion over the earth” meaning use it all up. I think they didn’t interpret it as being put in charge of the place and being held responsible for what you do with/to it.

    Environmentalists were always hippy, pothead, rabble-rousers, and I think they even danced and listened to rock music. Definitely not people good Baptists would hang around. Any of those concerns just weren’t on the church agenda until the past few years, but now even my sister’s Baptist church in rural VA talks about “stewardship” of the environment. Maybe because the economic cost and consequence is now being felt.

    Or maybe we Gen-Xers were too busy watching 120 Minutes and pegging the legs of our pants to ever sit quietly and read Wendell Berry.

  9. I’m 64 and I was raised in the “use it and reuse it age.” When I was only about 20 years old, in my first read through the scriptures, I found that the Old Testament was filled with admonitions regarding our stewardship of the resources. (Children of Israel were told to not cut down the trees when they conquered Cannan, etc.) My 60’s environmently-conscious friends and neighbors used to get angry with me because I refused to use paper towels because I thought they were a waste. I used cloth towels and even cloth napkins instead. We washed our disposible plastic cups and plates.

    I didn’t use disposable diapers with any of my children (They weren’t available for my first child but they were for the other two.) because even then I could see what they were doing to the land fills.

    We live in Florida but we didn’t use our air conditioning for 10 years because it seemed to be a waste of energy. We still keep our a/c at 83 to 85, which also drives some environmentally conscious friends crazy who visit us because “it’s sooo hot.” In the winter, our heater is at 68 to 70 on the few days that we actually need it. We turn off the pilot light of our heater in the summer to conserve on gas. I’ve planted trees in my yard that provide great shade and a lower electric bill.

    We drive our cars until they are unrepairable or we give them away to someone who needs a car. Living on the beach, we have driven some very rusty wonders. If my car isn’t moving, I turn it off. My father told me that idling a car burns gas and it sounded like common sense to me.

    I buy from the local produce markets because the locally grown foods are fresher, better and more inexpensive. I try to only take what I plan to eat on my plate and then eat all of it. I don’t like wasting food.

    My mother DID NOT tell me about the children in China who were starving. But she did say, “Take only what you will eat. Don’t take more.” We weren’t allowed to waste food. Now that I’m cooking for only my husband and me, we eat a lot of recycled meals. It’s fun to come up with 6 ways to serve a pot roast.

    I could go on and on but you get the idea.

    By the way, this is a much cheaper way to live that’s made our pocket book grow heathlier also. I guess the bottom line is I don’t have to speak in environmental health code language but I do have to live it.

  10. A lot of folks have made a life out of their radical foundations out where I live now. Hippies are alive and well here north of the Golden Gate Bridge – and I see young men and women dressing and living like it was still 1972 somewhere close by.

    Up in Oregon, especially around certain neighborhoods in Portland are people weaving a life based on lower consumerism, bicycles, and so on – the hippie values being reworked for an sustainable urban lifestyle.

    What happened? I personally was a little young in 1972 – 14 years old – but if I had a guess it would be drugs. Drugs happened. Pulled people into unhealthy decisions.- and I don’t mean Drugs like grass although I’m not sure the languidity I saw in friends wasn’t also contributing – I mean the really crappy stuff that left everyone freaked and feeding the addiction.

    And also kids happened. At my church there was vibrant young adult orientated ministry with House Churches and everything. This was before I was a member. But then the young adults got married (this is where I come in) and we all had children and there wasn’t the energy to run a Save-the-world-reformation after wrangling two-three kids under the age of five all day long. Plus pastoral leadership difficulties and congregational politics and so on drained out the local energy.

    And then there is the Laymen’s Committee which has systematically attacked and undermined change that was emerging on the national presbyterian level and in other mainline denominations.

    The push back on Gender equity, the push back on gender orientation and the push back on racial and ethnic equity that endangered traditional power centers.

    Our own fears and aspirations in the great GREED frenzy of the 80’s; deep recession and the gas crisis (the first clue that things weren’t always moving toward perfection). The Iranian hostages for sure – and how Reagan was able to capitalize on it by saying Carter wasn’t Rambo enough.

    And now the loss of any confidence in a decent future – what kind of a retirement is possible or access to what kind of medical support – and now the cost of food and the empty houses next door and so on and so on.

    Plus there are some fairly deep Americanisms that keep rumbling underneath the veneer of our culture – if you have the time Robert Jewett’s recent book, “Mission and Menace: Four centuries of American Religious Zeal” is rather provocative in his analysis.

  11. ok, if i remember right, Jimmy Carter wasn’t very popular, even if he wore nice sweaters. Ronald Reagan was VERY popular, and he said, “It’s morning in america!” and that translated to “don’t worry about the environment (or other things!).

    at least, that’s what I remember.

  12. Heading in the right direction in the 60’s & 70’s? That’s when this society starting backsliding on a mass level. The messages was about sex, drugs & rock-n-roll. The manipulators of this hedonistic lifestyle used music as the primary tool to penetrate the sheep and turn them into goats. Many hippies drank the Marxist Kool-Aid and are now posing as do-gooder politicians, professors and preachers.

  13. Do-gooder, poser preacher? You guessed it. That’s me! Hopefully a do-gooder. Definitely a poser.

    You’re right about the drugs, though. I recently heard a speaker on CSpan radio talking about the substance addiction rates of boomers. They’re higher than any other generation. His point was that the idea of “youthful experimentation” was false, and too much of it turned into a lifetime of abuse.

  14. Profit. I think the main motivator has been profit. You can get more pounds of meat off a chicken if you inject it full of hormones. Etc.

    The majority of people have always been content to use whatever product is most convenient and/or cheapest. So when less environmentally conscious items cost less or are more prevalent, that’s what people use. Then those are the companies that make a profit and prosper, so they make more such products. Vicious circle.

    I think the environmental impacts and reduction of non-renewables is finally starting to have an effect people can see. Hopefully that will push most private citizens to a more reasoned approach.

  15. Carol,
    A do-gooder is one thing, but a poser is a fraud. Is that what you’re calling yourself? I noticed you agreed with me on the drugs but failed to mention the Marxist connection. Hmmm….

  16. JC,

    It was a joke. Pretty much anyone who has ever known me can tell you that all I’ve ever wanted to do in life, all of my life, was whatever God wanted me to do. I’ve had that deep, strong commitment ever since I was a child.

    I make mistakes. I do a lot of things wrong. Most of the time I don’t feel worthy of my job (thus “the poser” joke). But I’ve always been as honest as possible, and I’ve never been a fraud.

    The point of the post was that we have all been called to care for God’s creation. It is one of the very first things God asked us to do. And we’ve been doing a poor job of it. The point of the post was not the drugs, or sex, or economic ideas of the 60s.

    I’m not a marxist. I don’t believe that religion is the opiate of the people. And I believe that history has shown us the devastating effects of marxist regimes.

    I do, however, think that capitalism can have a central element of greed and gluttony, which we need to temper as Christians with the reminder to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

  17. I agree, we should protect all of God’s creations. It’s pretty sickening to see people believe the global warming hysteria, especially since at least 31,000 scientist believe it’s not caused by man. We should protect the environment, but many people seem to care more for a tree or an animal than a human life, born or unborn. It’ become acceptable to extinguish a life, but not acceptable to drive an SUV. That’s a sign of a sick society.

    I’m glad to hear you’re not a Marxist. As for greed, it’s all over, not just with the big corporations. Check out some of these mega-churches that are more like Disney than what any church should ever be. I believe you can care for the environment and still enjoy limited government intrusion. Most of the global warming alarmist are total hypocrites when it comes to protecting the environment. This is just another scheme to tax us.

    Both parties pretend to fight with each other, but they’re really fighting us. You’re right, religion is not the opiate of the masses. The world would be a better place if it was. These are the new opiates of the masses:
    Sports, Drugs,Gambling,Pornography,Politics. People need to love themselves before they’re capable of loving one another…

  18. Laziness, is what it is. I was a kid in the 70’s and I remember the energy crisis: lines for gas rationing and President Nixon discouraging Christmas lights, and the crying Indian. And Earth Day.

    And then…it all seemed to fade away. People didn’t talk about it any more, which gave you the sense that there was PLENTY of energy! No crisis! Recycling didn’t seem to be so important (!) and it was hard to find a place to do it. So, “why worry?”

    Economically, too, the Carter years were a bust compared to the happy dappy Reagan times. Morning in America, as has been said.

    Therefore…I suppose people decided we didn’t need to worry about it anymore, here in the US. While in the rest of the world, they were very, very concerned and conserving. We are way late for the boat, as usual.

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