A climate catastrophe roars ahead unchecked. The oceans are turning so acidic they threaten to wipe out sea creatures at the base of the food chain. Bulldozers routinely mangle wetlands. The list goes on. And on. And on.
When Earth Day rolls around, the adage recurs that reporters coming onto the environment beat ought to get a standard-issue Prozac prescription. Because we have to chronicle all this. These examples can only be viewed as colossal failures of our species' effort to live on this planet God gave us without ruining it for future generations.
And yet, in watching the excellent PBS documentary "Earth Days" reviewing the environmental movement on the eve of this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I had to say that I'm encouraged by the progress homo sapiens has made in my lifetime.
In this country, at least, the air and water are demonstrably cleaner than when millions took took to the streets in 1970 to demand that the government crack down on pollution. We understand that we can't pave over the entire countryside.
And there is an understanding — increasingly more pervasive — that we must balance what we need here today with what future generations require if this civlization is to endure.
Even businesses — at least the forward-thinking ones — are getting it: If your world is so out of whack that civilization as we know it is destroyed… well, you aren't going to have many customers.
(And even businesses that are pretty clearly greenwashers couch their actions in terms that seem pro-environment. An example detailed by former Dateline Earther Lisa Stiffler and me a few years ago: "habitat conservation plans" that win government approval even though they'd more accurately be called "habitat destruction plans.")
(The folks at NASA provided this nice image from http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/)
At this juncture 40 years after environmentalism took its first big step toward becoming mainstream, it's worth remembering that we, as a species, are capable of moving decisively to make human civilization sustainable without wrecking our society. (And in fact, as we have see repeatedly, environmental protection leads to a higher standard of living, not a lower one.)
If you missed it, the "Earth Days" program is definitely worth two hours of your life. It starts out with a brilliant series of clips of every American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama extolling the virtues of protecting Mother Earth. Here's Ronald Reagan, for example:
"We must and will be sensitive to the delicate balance of our ecosystems, the preservation of endangered species and the protection of our wilderness lands."
And this quote from JFK reminded me of myself at about the time of Earth Day, then 10, envisaging wall-to-wall people covering the nation's backcountry, and wondering whether it's better to flush the toilet numerous times in order to better dilute pollution, or just flush once because fresh water is a precious commodity:
"If we do what is right now, in 1963, we must set aside substantial areas of our country for all the people who are going to live in it by the year 2000. Where 180 million Americans now live, by 2000 there will be 350 million of them."
The documentary goes on to give an excellent review of how we've gotten to where we are.
Here's what I have to say about all this: Yeah, we face the biggest threat to human civilization — ever — because of climate change. We may already have fiddled too long while our Rome burned. (See Bill McKibben's new book "Eaarth: Making Life On A Tough New Planet" for more on this, and more on what we can do.)
And climate change is far from our only growing environmental problem. To make an example of a much more easily solveable problem, witness how unbelievably large volumes of polluted water run off our cities and farms into streams and bays, so-called stormwater pollution that represents what has to be the greatest failure of the Clean Water Act.
Climate change and stormwater are just two examples of how, as population and per-capita resource consumption grow together, we have got to figure out how to make less of an impact on this Earth.
But we can do it! We are smart and creative people! This need not lead to people living in caves again, as charged by those who see protection of the environment as somehow antithetical to civilization.
No, in fact, with world population expected to grow half again as large as it is today by mid-century, it's clear that we are going to have to invent our way out of this technologically at the same time we tweak our political and economic systems to recognize our dependence on clean air and water and a healthy world.
It's a tall order, on global warming alone. NASA climate guru James Hansen is out with a paper saying we really need to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from 385 parts CO2 to a million parts atmosphere down to 350 ppm. (Hence the name of Bill McKibben's group, 350.org). That's probably going to involve doing something proactively to reduce that concentration. But scientists are working on that. And all of us can learn to live a life that isn't so carbon-intensive.
We can do this, people. We can do it while improving our standard of living, not diminishing it. But it's increasingly clear it's a matter of life or death for human civilization as we know it.
— Robert McClure