Environmental Movement's Grandchild, Environmental Justice and Sustainability, Grows Up, Turns 30 in Brooklyn

Today in Brooklyn, the Center for the Urban Environment will celebrate its 30th anniversary. There will be a "green tie" gala, locally grown food, and a party in the organization's brand new, totally "green," LEEDS certified space. Hundreds will attend. It's a terrific accomplishment. But it's more than that. While, technically, it's not the environmental movement's 30th birthday, the Center is a symbol of where the movement has been, how far it has come in a relatively short time, and where it might be headed.

Some say that you can trace the beginning of what we call the environmental movement back to those who called themselves conservationists. Many "conservationists" were actually rather "conservative" - it is, after all, contained in the words. The idea was to save the open spaces where the deer and the antelope play. The idea that "the environment" might include some urban areas and actual human beings was never a thought.

As the conservation movement morphed into the environmental movement, it got bigger and began to grow up. "The environment" encompassed many more ideas and became much more inclusive. It went through a big growth spurt in the sixties and seventies with the advent of campaigns like "Earth Day." And, importantly, urban areas were now part of the "environment" as well.

If the environmental movement is the child of the conservation movement, then the environmental justice and sustainability movement is its grandchild. And that grandchild is poised, at 30, to take the reins of the movement and move it to yet another place.

But what's happened in the last 30 years is really nothing short of miraculous.

Back then, the Center for the Urban Environment (known, until recently, as the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment), opened its doors in a space inside Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The Center began to establish itself as an environmental learning center, and its "urban rangers" eventually taught thousands of kids - and their parents - about the Park and about the habitat around it. The Center showed people that the environment was right in their own backyard - and that environment included green spaces, like the park, and the concrete streets and houses surrounding it. Like all environmental groups, they organized and reached out to the community continuously, and the ideas began to take hold, little by little.

The Center was teaching ideas like "sustainability" long before the word became popular - and so were countless other organizations throughout the country. And the idea of "environmental justice" - making sure that some neighborhoods were not overly burdened with toxic emissions and excesses, like the South Bronx here in NYC - was still a shadow idea.

We can remember here, at LCG Communications, when we started representing groups championing environmental justice and sustainability more than 10 years ago. We had to talk to reporters over and over again to get them to understand the concept, let alone to use those words. Just recently, we had a gratifying experience - a former opinion page editor of a major daily newspaper recalled our submitting a piece for a client that talked about "sustainability" in the headline. At the time, he'd said something like - "Sustainability? I think we'll have to lose that word." We spoke about a month ago and he recalled that piece. He said, "Remember that piece you submitted and I balked at the word sustainability? You were right. I was wrong."

With tenacity and vision, environmental groups all over the world began to increasingly use the media to explain the relationship between potential global environmental catastrophes - like global warming - and everyone's day-to-day environment. They showed that the concepts of environmental justice and sustainability - and its more colorful sister, "greening" - were the only true answers.

We no longer have to explain what sustainability and "greening" are (well, at least not as much as we used to) - pretty much everyone from reporters to regular people have heard those terms. The words "environmental justice" are used regularly, although its concept is still often unheeded by cities, towns and municipalities.

And the next 30 years? We already have seen a glimpse - cars that don't pollute; Americans who are aware of their incredible excesses and wastefulness; companies that, despite themselves, have to at least pretend to be "green" in order to win customers - and on and on.

So, as the folks at the Center for the Urban Environment blow out the 30 candles on the cake tonight, they can feel justifiably pleased that their efforts have paid off. They have successfully moved into a beautiful new home, have become a center for environmental education that's well known in NYC, and their events are regularly packed to the rafters.

At 30, the environmental movement's grandchildren are taking over - and we hope that they'll give us some even more interesting great grandchildren.