Happy 50th Earth Day!
That’s right — we have now been celebrating Earth Day for a half-century. One day a year, we pause (maybe) to consider our environment and our impact on Mother Earth. The other days, well, that’s kinda optional, right?
Still, it’s a worthy holiday and a modern tradition we should build on proudly. I can remember planting seeds in a mall planter at our high school on the second or third anniversary, and watching them sprout. Of course, they were doomed from the start, being in a highly trafficked area. They hardly survived 2 weeks but it still felt like an act of righteous defiance. And it implanted an environmental consciousness I proudly retain today.
When I was in my final semester of college in the mid-70s, I took an Environmental Science symposium. It was a small, weekly class — no more than 8 students and our TA (teaching assistant). I was sliding through a final elective before graduation. I was a lot more intent on my TV production class and working nights at the ice cream store.
This class was basically a breeze. We met weekly for a 3-hour discussion about another book regarding environmental issues. I quickly realized I could skim each week’s assigned book for pertinent information in the last hour before class and more than hold my own in the discussion. Essay tests and assignments ensured I would do well with minimal effort.
The curriculum was set up so that each week, we would read about another set of environmental issues — and the bleak prospects humanity faced in this area. You think air pollution is bad? Wait till you hear how the world will run out of clean water!
Early on in the semester, the TA explained the mathematical phenomenon known as a J-curve in statistical analysis. Known as the “Malthusian catastrophe” for British economist Thomas Malthus’s model showing population growth outpaces food production. This will inevitably result, he theorized, in widespread famine and death, probably including horrendous wars over farmland and food supplies.
On each of new facet of ecological disaster that we studied, the TA showed us a corresponding J-curve projection. In many ways, it was one of the most depressing classes I ever took. Much of what we learned simply reinforced my increasingly persistent belief that we were the last generation of humans on earth and that we were willfully and wantonly destroying our own home — and were simply incapable of stopping ourselves. This apocalyptic vision dovetailed nicely with my childhood memory of an ongoing existential fear of extinction due to nuclear war. Thinking about our species coming to an end due to nature’s revenge (or whatever you want to call it) had become second nature and optimism in the face of our persistent foolishness was hard to find.
In more modern times, as we have discussed climate change, a similar projection chart got dubbed the “hockey stick” due to the quickly climbing curve’s resemblance to one. I had the chance to see its originator, Michael Mann, co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, at the 2012 SXSW Eco conference. His appearance left me impressed with two strong opinions he stated. Firstly, that he will not talk with people who ask if he believes in climate change — for the same reason he wouldn’t have a serious discussion with anyone who asked if he believed in gravity. “They are both FACTS,” he stated bluntly.
But the other comment hit even harder and stuck longer. “Stop saying we’re going to ‘destroy the planet’ — we’re not that powerful.” His point was that climate change would drastically change the entire ecosphere to the point that we might kill ourselves off and maybe even all life on the planet — but that the planet would still survive.
And now, less than 10 years later, the Earth is in open rebellion against its harsh occupation by humans. Indeed, we are currently in the midst of a bit of a “hiatus” of modern civilization. As we experience various degrees of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we’re seeing a bit of resurgence from Mother Earth.
The air from Boston to Washington is its cleanest since a NASA satellite started measuring nitrogen dioxide,in 2005…Compared to the previous five years, March air pollution is down 46% in Paris, 35% in Bengaluru, India, 38% in Sydney, 29% in Los Angeles, 26% in Rio de Janeiro and 9% in Durban, South Africa, NASA measurements show.
Our Environmental Sciences TA did leave us with one optimistic note for the final class of that semester. After he had scared the beejesus out of us for weeks, always invoking the dreaded j-curve acceleration, he had us revisit the concept. And he pointed out how history shows a number of these types of disastrous predictions had been avoided through some completely unforeseen innovation or unexpected change. Malthus’ original J-curve forecast of doom failed to come true because of advances in agricultural production. More than once, we have averted seeming disaster through some new discovery, ingenious intervention, or unpredicted advance. Something like that flattens the curve (in today’s virus-parlance), converting the apparently impossibly escalation of the J-curve into a S-curve that can continue without disaster.
That is the hope. That is the goal. And with leaders like Greta Thunberg and the concepts advanced in the Green New Deal, we certainly have a chance to change our ways. And if we want to truly love our Mother Earth, we will undertake those changes — before she shakes off the ”human infection” and continues onward without us pesky people polluting her everywhere we go.