Back in 1970, when the first Earth Day was observed, life was relatively easy for those in the industrialized nations. Although there was highly visible pollution here and there, and the Cuyahoga River famously caught on fire in 1969, the problems were nearly all based on point sources, namely measurable, restrictable sources. Although the effects of these sources were highly visible, they could be controlled with then-existing technologies and enforcement applied in a methodical manner. And great improvements were made in controlling these visible problems, starting in 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day.
Last night, PBS Frontline program presented this encapsulation of the change in environmentalism and environmental needs from then to now.
In the 1970s, we simply needed to control manufacturers, town water treatment processing, and garbage management. Today, we face more difficult problems: the dependence on chemical processes for creating the goods of daily life, the move of nations into "advanced" technology and transportation usage, the dominance of factory farming so as to feed a growing world population, all of these are at far higher levels than ever before. And the number of people in the world has more than doubled from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.77 billion currently.
In the name of economic growth, the world now spews out plastics and products without any restraint or self-knowledge, in an orgy of expansion and competition which now leaves bodies of water contaminated with PCBs and hundreds of other chemicals, old and new. The newer chemicals come from items such as deodorants, soaps, hair sprays, glues, antibiotics, other pharmaceuticals, and from specific varieties of plastics which give off chemicals such as endocrine disrupters.
In the oceans and bays, these disruptions of the environment are killing fish and whales at young ages – even before they reach adulthood – and are suspected in an increase in intersex and other sexual and reproductive problems in both animals and humans. Human babies are now more frequently born with dual-sex genitals or other conditions needing extensive attention. This has now become a subject of study by the US government, with major studies underway but not yet completed.
Looking in another direction, global climate change / global warming is the best known environmental threat, and avoiding that threat would require dramatic cuts in production of all greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide and methane being the two biggest threats according to current analysis. Black carbon, from unfiltered burning of wood and similar fuels in third world countries that are starving for energy of any form, is now thought by some to be second only to carbon dioxide as a source of global climate change.
And looking in yet another direction, we have likely passed the maximum amount of fossil fuel energy that the world will ever produce in a single year. That phenomenon is known as Peak Oil (and Peak Gas and Peak Coal). As the demands for energy continue to increase all over the world even in this recession (China's growth outweighs shrinkage elsewhere), loss of energy availability could quickly and dramatically change the nature of daily life worldwide, especially in developed nations. If you use your imagination and think of long lines waiting for expensive fuel, and increased prices for all the other goods that currently need cheap energy to hold down their costs, you will start to get an idea.
So, what are the answers? What does Earth Day 2009 represent, and what can we start to accomplish in the next year?
I think the answer is a mixed bag. The burning wheel of consumption has a life of its own, firmly planted in the human mind through evolution, biology, and culture. In other words, most people when we see a warm article of clothing (especially in the colder countries) or see a better item of food or of meat, or see a bigger house or faster or shinier vehicle, we want that item. Not to be too cynical, in some cases those conveniences are able to increase the chance of survival of an individual person or family, in poorer countries. Who would not get better food so the children and other loved ones have a better chance of being happy, healthy, and surviving longer?
It is the innate animal force that lodges in every human being, that drives us to reproduce, to gather more possessions, and to fight for the right to do these things. But we are able to evolve and become creatures beyond only the lower survival instincts. Eventually, the increasing pressure of the new reality of scarcity of all kinds of resources, will force individuals worldwide into paths of personal development, spirituality, and rethinking of priorities, whether people know they are doing so, or not.
Entire social structures will need to evolve dramatically, as the nature of suburbs and cities will need to change. There will be crying and shouting as we are all dragged kicking into a new way of life.
My goal is simply to be calm enough to act in a positive manner during all this, or at least to kick and scream less than I would if I was caught unaware. And why does that matter? It matters because in the end, each of us can and will need to rise to that level of perception before we can turn around our problems. We might as well start developing that mind now.
What does this mean for Earth Day 2009? It means living more simply, helping others, trying to consume less and want less, and finding more satisfaction in peaceful moments, in friendships, in socially-beneficial accomplishments. As many have said, it may indeed be a more abundant life than a possession-based and activity-based lifestyle.
None of this is news. Someone once said "The best things in life are free". The carrot has always been there. Now the stick also approaches. We might as well get ourselves in gear and find the abundant good in living in more harmony with the earth and ourselves.
Movements such as Transition and Awakening the Dreamer, and many re-localization projects taking place around the world, are the way of the future, and are providing ways of joining with others to move to a sustainable future.
Maybe your Earth Day will be a day for personal reflection and inner peace. Maybe it will be a day to think about and act on joining with others to take action. Maybe it will be a day of learning more about specific techniques for living in a more green manner. For those who will have a day more or less like every other day, some small part of you may start to think more about where we are headed, and what we should do to change course toward a better direction.
In any case, may it be a wonderful day for you.