The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, marked for me the dawn of environmental consciousness, and I was so hopeful.
In southern Alabama, the channelization of streams by the Army Corps of Engineers and clear-cutting of southern forests by the mammoth forest products companies were the issues at the top of the local environmental agenda of the day. As a young zoology grad student, the issues seemed large but surmountable in the spring of 1970. Fixing them would just take time.
Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was the founder of Earth Day. It took him almost a decade to find a way to lift the declining state of the planet’s health into the political radar; most of his political colleagues would have none of it. But in the late sixties, the youth of those times took up the banner, because they came to see their futures as much impacted by the environmental fate of the Earth as by the political fate of Southeast Asia.
Only a few years had passed since Rachel Carson first sounded the alarm that yes, we could foul our own nest, and had already done so. Our air and water were making us sick, as well as bringing about the decline of many of the animal species with which we share the planet. That the products of man’s industry and commerce had accumulated to such a degree as to alter the balance of nature was a new and startling alarm, but not so many were listening back then.
Flash forward: Earth Day, April 22, 2007.
I won’t bother giving you the numbers that measure thirty seven years of world-wide population growth; energy and resource use per capita; the number of extinct species and disappearing habitats; and the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and elevated air and sea temperatures.
Suffice it to say that the planet-wide problems we face today fall far higher on the scale of urgency than anything looming just ahead of us on that first Earth Day less than forty years ago. The specter of a rapidly warming planet overshadows every lesser concern we might have. And some still aren’t listening.
Working to protect particular species and habitats or air and water quality in our cities becomes moot-like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship must stay afloat. This Earth Day, we acknowledge that it can sink. And we don’t have so much time.
I’ll be bold and assume that thirty seven years of planet-watching earns me one stand in the bully pulpit. From this one citizen’s perspective, four things must happen. Making the rubber meet the road is quite another matter, and these are complex issues we must be talking about in Floyd’s meeting places, churches, and organizations.
1. We must take individual responsibility for being carefully conscious of our family and community “environmental footprint” and reduce it. This will require over the coming decades that we restructure our households, municipalities and economies of goods and services on a more local and self-sufficient scale. Floyd can be exemplary in this transition, and many are already moving in this direction. Have you visited the Sustainable Living Education Center at the Jacksonville Center lately?
2. We must insist that efficiency and conservation by industry and commerce play a much stronger role than they have thus far in CO2 abatement. Energy produced by 600 new coal-burning plants already planned for could be saved (and that much CO2 avoided) by changes in air-conditioning and improved building insulation efficiency alone. What are we waiting for?
3. We must not become complacent by thinking that our individual conservation or lifestyle changes alone will fully solve the larger problem. Let’s insist that international governments-especially including our own and starting now-shift away from carbon-based industry, commerce and transportation. Simply using less of the same toxin will still, over time, poison the planet-and this, particularly as China and India grow to match the US as per capita energy consumers.
4. We must find a just way to prevent those who produce the least greenhouse gases from suffering the most. And governments would do well to be proactive-in places like Bangladesh, for instance-to reduce the unprecedented refugee crisis likely when tens of millions lack water once provided by Himalayan glaciers. We must channel our national budgets towards a new kind of defense that includes mitigation of climate change impact here and abroad, even while we drastically reduce production of greenhouse gases.
No matter what we do in the short run, climate change impacts on humanity are likely to be large in the coming century, even here in remote Floyd County. Coping with this unprecedented degree of change will require a whole new way of thinking about our relationship with the planet and each other. Let’s renew our commitment to these goals this Earth Day, and move quickly toward an Earth Decade.
And while I’m hoping, perhaps we could come to see THIS ISSUE as the common enemy, not other nations with whom we share this shrinking planet. We’re all of us on the very same boat. © Fred First / April 2007