Surveying the current wreckage of federal environmental policies, I’ve wondered: Close to half a century out from the first Earth Day — April 1970 — how could such a dramatic reversal even be possible?

Across the board, clean air and water regulation is being aggressively rolled back, commitments to public lands undercut, credible science linking environmental responsibility to human and planetary health rejected out of hand.

Where is the massive public objection to this unprecedented assault?

Could it be we still lack an environmental ethic, a value system strong enough to make the madness unthinkable? Could that be, despite all of our environmental education, the passage of major air and water and chemical laws, the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its counterparts in virtually every state, and despite the maturing of ecological science that proves how humans and the rest of nature are interconnected?

William Rees raises that sad possibility in a compelling piece, Are Humans Unsustainable by Nature? Rees is a scientist and co-inventor of the “ecological footprint” analysis that shows we’d need several Earths if everyone consumed like Americans. He says that being opportunistic, oriented to the short term, to the quick gain, to seizing all available resources — all this served humans quite well as an evolutionary strategy (so far).

The University of British Columbia professor further argues that to support these genetic predispositions we have concocted “cultural genes,” or memes — like the myth of endless, limitless growth, applied to everything from population politics to housing developments.

Indeed, mainstream economics uncritically embraces the no-limits myth, discounting natural systems — the Earth, in other words — as a constraint on human ingenuity and enterprise. 

In contrast, environmentalism at its core is about heeding limits; and while limits on growth, consumption, stuffing the atmosphere with CO2 (carbon dioxide)  and saturating coastal waters with nutrient runoff ultimately may be liberating (as in, we get to keep the Bay, the planet, etc.), politicians running on a platform of  “limits” are too easily dismissed as against progress.

I was set to keep on in this vein, to cite critiques of the environmental movement since Earth Day 1970 for having cast its net too narrowly, focusing on wilderness too much and social justice not enough — for betting we could sustain the planet by working within our corporate-capitalist system. But does our breakdown of environmental resistance really lie in citizens’ failure to develop a strong enough ethic? Not so fast, some say.

Environmentalists have gotten used to mainly playing defense, said Gerald Winegrad, former Maryland state senator and one of the environmental stalwarts of my generation. And that needs to change; [we] need to think Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam protests, marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience, super-PACS. “Mimic the NRA,” he said, referring to the political potency of the gun group.

Another view: Modern history can be seen as pendulum swinging between the powers of the state and those of corporate interests. This is according to Michael Lewis, my environmental historian colleague at Salisbury University.

The great rise of environmentalism in the decade around the first Earth Day coincided with a major swing toward strong government. It also came at a time of comparative economic prosperity, when “jobs versus regulations” lacked the power to divide us.

Environmental awareness has never been higher, Lewis noted. That’s not the same as an ethic, but still, “there’s a lot of dry wood sitting around in the environmental forest [waiting] for something to spark it,” he said.

Our democracy itself emerged hand in hand with the exploitation of natural resources and other peoples (think of the enslaved and Native Americans). It remains an open question, Lewis said, how democracy will cope with an age of limits that we are still so reluctant to acknowledge.

Indeed, representative democracy is not very representative right now, in the view of Will Baker, who has led the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for decades. His early inspirations and mentors were Republicans like William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, the first two EPA administrators. (It was also a Republican, Arthur Sherwood, who co-founded the Bay Foundation in 1967).

But with few exceptions, the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress are simply unwilling to challenge President Trump’s environmental rollbacks and rejection of sound science, Baker said.

That, Baker said, does not reflect the majority wishes of citizens of all political persuasions, “any more than most East Germans wanted the Berlin Wall.”

But it’s the lobbyists, the big money, the computerized gerrymandering of political districts that is running things these days, he said. His words: “Democracy isn’t really achieving its ideals.”

Maybe it does come down an ethical failure after all, or a moral vacuum. And maybe it’s centered in Washington, DC.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.