“What goes around comes around.” So goes a proverb commonly cited in my early adulthood as both a hip warning and a blasé commentary on the inevitability of one’s chickens coming home to roost. No one, however, ever imagined how large those chickens might get.
Back then, littering was a serious but typically myopic establishment concern. Highways were strewn with warnings of stiff fines for letting any vehicular detritus deface the landscape. Yet the roads themselves, accompanying billboards, and Detroit’s signature gas-guzzling contribution to America’s junkyard-bound mobility escaped all attention of in any way being an environmental impact equally unsightly to those taking time to notice. Hurriedly preoccupied with always moving “upward,” our culture was totally commerce-driven. America’s bottom line had everything to do with economic growth without much concern as to how that was achieved
“America The Beautiful” has no lyrics inspired by our nation’s unstoppable automotive worship. Yet, what could be more beautiful than cruising down an asphalted landscape in a brand new Impala, Mustang or other enticingly marketed homages to nature? Even better if named after Native Americans. No mention of America being a vast sea-to-shining-sea trash can or boundless ashtray.
Back then we were free of 24-7 environmental guilt. That awareness was only beginning and littering was chiefly an aesthetic concern central to Lady Bird Johnson’s quixotic mission to make America beautiful again. That quest remains woefully incomplete. Most Americans still can’t see the value in a cultural elevation of quality over quantity. Why should a building look any better than just an enormously profitable Big Box?
Lady Bird’s husband was waging a far more daunting battle in “winning hearts and minds.” Beautification wasn’t his concern. The Vietnam War’s humiliation raged on yet America nevertheless viewed itself as a great nation in no need of a major makeover. If some men would stop wearing their hair like a woman all would again be fine. A simplistic “love it or leave it” patriotism prevailed. Carpet-bombing was a necessary evil. Agent Orange was merely another beneficial weed killer like everyone already used in their own backyard. A nation numbed by endless defeat could care less as to the military’s collateral environmental destruction in some distant part of the planet few were ever likely to visit.
Still hard to believe, Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law, aligning conservatism with conservation. Despite that leadership, environmentalism remained marginalized by both the left and right as simply more counterculture nonsense threatening mainstream American life. Tree-hugging was straight-out unpatriotic. Saving whales was disdained even without conflict with lobstering’s survival. Recycling was for hardcore do-gooders. Most people continued a predominant lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. Such was America’s greatness, creating previously unimaginable productivity without ever considering what an unchecked materialism’s impact might be on the primacy of nature’s necessity.
Then, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire. 13 times. Anyone knowing the difference between the Love Canal and the Love Boat recognized that pollution wasn’t groovy. An omnipresent roadside “Crying Indian” stared America down until finally enough people environmentally blinked. Littering significantly subsided. Cars got smaller. The Establishment started growing longer hair. Recycling gained acceptance. Solar panels surmounted mere curiosity. Environmental correctness became a mainstream possibility to be jump-started as soon as its free-market profitability and low consumer cost took off. Four decades later, I’m still hopeful.
Ironically, being “Green” remains little more than a great marketing tool. Adding “Earth Friendly” to anything immediately provides one less hesitation to buy into consumerism’s persistent endangerment of the planet at some level.
Don’t blame me, I drive a hybrid and use paper straws. I buy organic. I religiously recycle and compost. I give myself a gold star. Yet, the magnitude of garbage increases.
Now, China’s competing capitalistic engine says it refuses to dispose of our capitalism’s increasingly unprofitable can-kicked waste. Recycling’s becoming imperiled while our landfills continue maxing out. What now “comes around” is how are we to finally take fiscal and moral responsibility for our personal, community, state and national planetary harm? Siri doesn’t have the answer. Let’s ask Alexa.
Gary Anderson lives in Bath.