Earth Day Reflections, 2013

Published on April 22nd, 2013


“The world is changed.   I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  I smell it in the air.  Much that once was, is lost.”

     *Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (introduction to the feature-length film, 2001)

As we mark the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day this April 22, it's worth reminding ourselves again that U.S. and world population stabilization were central to the vision of the greener, more sustainable future advocated by Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson and his legions of idealistic young supporters.

Yet since those heady and hopeful days, America’s population has continued to swell unchecked. Our numbers have ballooned by more than 50%, from about 200 million at the time of the first Earth Day to more than 315 million today.

It is as if a young man visited his doctor’s office, stood on a scale and saw that he weighed 204 pounds.  His doctor told him she thought he needed to watch his weight – all those pounds were exerting an excessive aerobic load on his heart and coronary arteries.  Yet in a subsequent visit to the doctor some years later – after having gone through several rounds of expensive, ever larger new wardrobes – he finds that he now weighs 315 pounds.  What should his doctor say now, other than ‘enough is enough,’ or ‘time to reverse course, pronto!”

The good doctor might also say, taking a cue from the Lady Galadriel in JRR Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, that the world has changed.  And that conditions are even more dire than they were before, so that her patient has little choice but to change if he wishes to survive.

The late Donella Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, was once asked:  “What is your greatest source of hope that society can shift to more responsible patterns of production and consumption and achieve a sustainable future?”

Her reply is worth quoting:

 "The fact that we have to.  If we don’t choose to, the planet will make us.  And the fact that our lives will be better if we do.  It isn’t sacrifice we’re selling, it’s a more meaningful, time-filled, love-filled, nature filled existence.  So, as Herman Daly says, we are about to be hit by the hammer of necessity, but we are cradled on the anvil of desirability.  We have no choice but to conform."

At the time of the first Earth Day, in the same era when The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth were published, scientists knew only a fraction of what they know now about our planet's plight. But it isn't just our knowledge that has advanced by leaps and bounds. The condition of our planet has advanced as well, but ‘advanced’ as in ‘worsened’.

A number of contemporary, pressing environmental issues were underestimated, or all but unknown, back in 1970 when Earth Day celebrants with flowers in their hair were dancing in the parks:

  • Toxic contamination.  By 1970, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had galvanized public concern about pesticides, and action had already begun to control their manufacture and use, at least in the U.S.  Nevertheless, countless toxic substances, ranging from heavy metals like mercury to synthetic compounds like PCBs, continue to proliferate and spread around the world.  For instance, the class of newer insecticides known as neonicotinoids, related to the nicotine found in tobacco and cigarettes, have been implicated in the insidious phenomenon known as honeybee colony collapse disorder (whereby the bees simply vanish en masse), which is alarming beekeepers and farmers whose crops the bees pollinate. [How Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement, by Eliza Griswold, New York Times, September 21, 2012]
  •  Assault on the stratospheric ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As of     1970, we were blissfully ignorant of this problem, even although the detrimental impact of CFCs on the ozone layer that protects Earth’s surface from harmful UV-B radiation had begun some decades earlier with the manufacture and widespread use of these chemical compounds as refrigerants, propellants, and solvents. Thankfully, as a result of successful international diplomacy codified in the Montreal Protocol, CFCs are being phased out, although it will take some decades for the ozone layer to recover from the extensive damage already done.
  • Acid rain. In 1970, American scientists hadn’t yet made the connection between emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by power plants and vehicles and the worsening problem of streams and lakes in the northeast turning increasingly acidic. Often the water became too acidic to support aquatic life, including fish. Beautiful lakes in the Adirondacks and elsewhere were sterilized. Thankfully, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 began to  control this problem.
  • Climate Change. In 1970, the few scientists concerned about climate change were worried not about global warming, but rather a new Ice Age.
  • Biodiversity and extinctions. Only in the last couple of decades have biologists really understood the extent of the threat to the Earth’s biological diversity posed by human commandeering of virtually the entire planet.
  •  Overfishing and the threatened ocean. In 1970, most people still regarded the oceans as a vast, untapped, infinitely resilient resource that was largely unaffected by human activities. Since then the sea has been stripped of many its largest fish and has shown itself extremely vulnerable to chemical and noise pollution, acidification, overheating, and invasive species. Whales are bombarded by active sonar and toxins, while seabirds and dolphins are snared and drowned by fishing gear even in the remotest spots on earth.
  • Threatened amphibians. Amphibians are under unprecedented assault from a variety of factors around the world and are being driven extinct hundreds of times faster than the normal background rate of extinctions. Fully one-third of the Earth’s 5,700 species of frogs, toads, and salamanders are now threatened with extinction.

These are but a few of the serious environmental challenges and crises we face.  Ironically, as a result of numerous outlandish predictions and jeremiads made by environmentalists back in the 1970 era, all variations of “the sky is falling!” the environmental movement lost much of its credibility with much of the public. Many Americans increasingly rolled their eyes at the latest wacky claims by the “gloom-and-doomers” and “tree huggers.”

Some of the most provocative, and in retrospect exaggerated, predictions about  overpopulation, claimed it would result in mass starvation by the mid-seventies. This was indeed one plausible outcome averted only by Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which vastly increased grain production through high-yield strains, but also increased dependency on water and fossil fuel-based fertilizers and herbicides. [Norman Borlaug, The Genius Behind the Green Revolution, by Henry I. Miller, Forbes, January 28, 2012]

As a rule of thumb, scientists know better than the environmental activists, and they are far less inclined (although not immune) to hyperbole. And now it is the scientists themselves who are deeply, deeply worried.  Some of them believe civilizational collapse is all but inevitable, among them the estimable Dennis Meadows, one of the co-authors of The Limits to Growth and its follow-up studies.  Prof. Meadows believes it’s too late for sustainable development, and that “there’s nothing we can do” because of the momentum of our trajectory.

Other scientists believe that while there is still time and there is still hope, both are in short supply. In a new paper  entitled “The Malthusian-Darwinian dynamic and the trajectory of civilization,” just published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolutionby Jeffrey Nekola of the University of New Mexico and 10 colleagues, the authors conclude starkly that :

“a sustainable future will ultimately require: 1) negative population growth for a number of generations, followed by zero growth; 2) a steady-state economy based on sustainable use of renewable energy and material resources; and 3) new social norms that favor the welfare of the entire global population over that of specific individuals and groups.”

This is a tall order, all the more since the authors go on to state: “It is also essential that we recognize that humanity has not yet evolved the genetic or cultural adaptations needed to accomplish these tasks.”

It is a tall order alright, but it might still be doable. And like aging, it beats the alternative. We might surprise ourselves after all; it wouldn’t be the first time.

Several years before he died, the venerable Senator Nelson and I chatted at a National Press Club conference we had organized.

Senator Nelson lamented that the American environmental movement had turned its back on population, and he understood that its inability or unwillingness to deal with immigration was largely responsible for this. He startled me when he declared that at the end of the day, and despite all his accomplishments and accolades, he considered himself a failure because the U.S. was moving away from sustainability, not toward it.  Senator Nelson said this matter-of-factly, with a touch of regret and resignation in his voice, but no self-recrimination, and certainly not attempting to elicit any fawning protest from me that he was wrong.  It was, after all, the truth, and he able to face it unflinchingly.

It is to CAPS credit that it has not lost sight of that original Earth Day vision of a sustainable California, America, and world, which necessitates sustainable, stable populations. However high the mountain, we keep climbing, however forceful the tide, we keep swimming against it; however formidable the opposition, we refuse to capitulate.




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