Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Let me begin with a reminder about the origin of Earth Day that I cribbed from the web site of the Earth Day Network.
The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.
The year of the first Earth Day mobilization, 1970, marked the beginning of the Environmental Era, as characterized by significant collective action. The first significant environment statute, The Clean Air Act, was passed that year, followed in 1972 by the Clean Water Act. Other historical forces were also at work beyond the Earth Day demonstrations. It just so happened that the chair of the Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee of the important Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was Edmund Muskie, who was looking for national exposure to underpin his unsuccessful run for the Presidential nomination. Earth Day in 1970 was the first major outpouring of public support for the Earth. Until that time, environmental concerns were limited to state and local activities.
On each of the subsequent decennial anniversaries, attempts were made to duplicate the demonstrations of public concern for the Earth with some success, but not with the impact of the first Earth day. Is it because environmental concerns have become so engrained in our social and political cultures that further dramatic events are unnecessary? Hardly. This year the theme in the US is “The Face of Climate Change.” The video put up on the the Earth Day coordinating organization shows wind machines, solar panels, pretty faces, but not a single image of the real face of climate change: floods, tornados, drought, potable water threats, ocean rise, and more. The status of the political economy on the issue can be characterized as comatose. Avoidance and denial are the primary positions of the political system in our Nation’s capital.
As an ironic counterpoint, one of the front page items on the online edition of the New York Times, today on Earth Day had this headline: “Chinese Auto Buyers Grow Hungry for Larger Cars.” And US automakers are right there getting in line.
General Motors announced that it would introduce nine new or restyled S.U.V. models in China in the next five years, and disclosed that it would build four more factories and add 6,000 jobs to accommodate its ever-rising sales here… A Chrysler executive said that his company would start making Jeep Cherokees in Changsha in southern China by the end of next year. And China’s domestic carmakers showed a wide range of S.U.V.’s, the heftier the better.
The irony and cynicism are palpable. With so much other trouble capturing the headlines, it is very hard to keep the impacts on the Earth in the headlines. I went out today to renew my driver’s license and drove right through the part of Watertown that was the epicenter of the shelter-in-place lockdown of the city last week. No sign of anything reminding one of the massive mobilization was evident at the exact spot. Not to belittle in any way the horrendous events at the Marathon and the bloody search for and capture of the suspects, they will pass and come to be seen against the larger, continuing insults to our species perpetrated in acts of domestic violence, terrorism, insurgency, and all the military responses to the foregoing. The profusion of SWAT teams in full military garb driving around in armored vehicles attests to the militarization of our domestic policing system. By the way, another headline in small print way down the front page today was “Five Dead in Apartment Shooting Near Seattle.”
All this serves as preface to what I want to say on this Earth Day. Every day we humans living in affluent, industrialized settlements create more harm to the Earth than the all the crimes reported in the newspaper accounts. Do we ever see an account of yet another species going extinct? Do we ever see a story about priceless habitats being developed for economic ends and thereby lost? Do we ever see a photo of a polar bear caught on an ice flow broken loose from the icepack and unable to feed itself? Do we ever see photos of alpine meadows in places where skiers used to come down the trails? Perhaps, if one looks at the news media of the environmental community, but not in the same places that fill us up with stories of mayhem in our cities.
This suggests to me that the consciousness raising that Earth Day in 1970 created is absent today, at least in the US. Some of the sponsors claim that a billion people will be doing something. Maybe so, but most of those are somewhere else in the world. Maybe the world has gotten too full of stories of economic breakdown, faltering political systems, wars, and so on to notice all the natural disasters that are occurring in the present and those that will surely show up in the future. Perhaps all the human travail in the news can be attributed to isolated, independent causes (I doubt it.), but the damages to the earth are systemic and intimately connected to the global socio-economic system.
Maybe that’s the reason these issues slip into the background. Our culture does a very poor job dealing with systemic complexity. We like nice precise answers to everything we are concerned about. This shows up as news that is limited to sound bites and political debates that are vacuous and banal. There are also other reasons for the lack of attention being given to the “crimes” perpetrated on the Earth. You can now read about them in Andy’s and my book which is now available. Tomorrow when you read this, Earth Day will have come and gone. No matter. Go outside and give a tree a hug. A real hug, not a symbolic one, but one that comes from your authentic, loving self.
ps. The image at the top suggests that some will never get it. We are living in a way that all the recycling and reuse conceivable won’t make a dent. It is really hard even for old hands in the environmental business like me not to get so cynical about sustainability that we wash our hands of the whole mess, and adopt Mother Goose’s famous lines, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”