Earth Day Texas – Big, Boisterous, and Bi-Partisan?
Earth Day Texas (Earth DayTx) is as big and boisterous as the Lone Star State itself. And, it’s as full of contradictions as the contemporary, huge environmental movement. Speakers, exhibitors, and sponsors range from nature centers showing off screech owls, and groups handing out trees and tee shirts that say “Get High. Climb a Tree” to the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Corporations like Coca Cola mix with consumer and conservation groups like Public Citizen. And, incredibly enough, the whole event — which draws over 120,000 people over several days to the historic Fair Park in Dallas (of which the Cotton Bowl is only a part) — is staunchly bipartisan. I found myself conflicted whether or not such seeming soft-pedaling of the environmental crisis and the rabidly anti-science and anti-environmental Trump Administration was a good idea.
I was invited to speak against nuclear power as a clean, renewable climate-friendly fuel by Trammell Crow, the key organizer and financial supporter of Earth DayTx. Crow, whom I first met when we were both on the Board of Directors of Population Connection, is a self-styled green Republican with his own contradictions. A wildly successful businessman, Crow, a Texas native, went to Yale, sports a ponytail with his jeans, and supports Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the Senate’s chief climate change hawk. Whitehouse was there rousing the crowd with explanations of how climate change would wreck the oceans and the shorelines of both Rhode Island and Texas and calling on his enthusiastic listeners to take on major corporations that refuse to work and lobby to prevent climate change. I was happy.
But Whitehouse was more than balanced by speeches from Energy Secretary Rick Perry and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Their presence led to some mildly disruptive shouting demonstrators at the reception before Pruitt’s speech. And, then, two members of the audience were escorted out after they jumped up and shouted at Pruitt during his talk. And my own talk against nuclear power was more than balanced by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the President, an avid nuclear power proponent, and member of numerous national blue ribbon commissions on nuclear energy and security. We then joined a panel tilted with strongly pro-nuclear techies from Texas A&M.
Is all this environmentalism? Does it help? Should hard-core environmentalists like me simply ignore or boycott such Earth Day extravaganzas?
I get outside the Beltway often, organizing with environmental justice groups in North Carolina and speaking at campuses nationwide. But, if truth be told, despite my best efforts to reach out beyond the green choir, I often find myself surrounded by like-minded greenies. I found Earth DayTX and rubbing shoulders with both the establishment, grassroots environmentalists, school kids, and just plain tourists oddly energizing and encouraging. Listening on stage to an impassioned and, frankly, well informed and powerfully-delivered speech by Susan Eisenhower was the first time I have ever heard an unfettered, smart, full-blown defense of nuclear power. Yes. I disagreed. My own talk and responses challenged the idea that nuclear power can somehow (with more funding and new technological breakthroughs yet to come) be made, safe, renewable, and affordable.
Nevertheless, the venue, the diverse attendees, and the prevailing culture of the event meant to allow respectful disagreement and dissent, led to great audience participation, fresh, honest questions, and thoughtful explanations by both sides of what the implications of the United States leaving nuclear power out of our energy future might be.
Same for Scott Pruitt. I disagreed with every word he said. Yet I learned he is savvy, tough, knows his environmental law and EPA procedures, and must be taken very seriously. I listened to him seated with a group of University of Texas Law School students who had their own impromptu seminar after he left. We talked about what, as future environmental lawyers, they could do to challenge Pruitt’s narrow legal reasoning and his shocking assertion that his lawsuit against the EPA, while Attorney General of Oklahoma, was simply the equivalent of what the Sierra Club and environmental groups do even more. My new friends had to wrestle with his arguments, become creative and engaged. And, they were eager to sign up with the Rachel Carson Council.
At dinner in the beautifully ornate Hall of State, I listened to Gen. Wesley Clark lay out a tight, compelling case for why climate change is the biggest national security threat we face. He was applauded wildly by the assembled diners, many of whom were pretty well-heeled, conservative, and, well, Texan. This was followed for dessert by the three authors of The New Grand Strategy, Mark Mykleby, Patrick Doherty, and Joel Makower. They argue that the US needs to organize its future and its national security and economic policy around sustainability. Doherty, a former Marine Colonel, with the voice and macho style to match, fired up the huge hall when he said in less polite terms that climate deniers are simply candy-ass wimps. Yes. The menu was filet mignon and shrimp (I don’t know if there were vegan options). But I heard all this seated with a diverse trio of Yale students (white, black, Asian) who were working on a community sustainability and justice project led by a Latina professor from Cedar Valley College, a member of the Dallas County Community College District.
Out in the historic Fair Park, an incredibly well preserved set of Art Deco buildings from the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition, I watched classes of urban African-American school kids watch in awe as a country girl fed and milked a dairy cow. I saw children proudly show their parents their free green stuff and souvenirs from endless booths. I saw crowds milling happily by the Cotton Bowl, not to celebrate the brutal, brain-numbing sport of football, but to celebrate the environment, the Earth, and, maybe, just maybe, what they could learn and do about it. It was all very Texan. Big. Boisterous. And not Blue, nor Red, but Green.