Earth Day

… So, today is:


… and not only that, it’s the 40th anniversary of the first “Earth Day.” Shall we reflect? Yes, let’s shall.

My career as a geoscientist was largely inspired by desire to spend time outside, and that in turn was inspired by a lot of positive outdoor experiences as a child and young man. I feel at peace and satisfied when I am spending time in natural landscapes, most particularly mountainous landscapes.

The more time I spend thinking about the Earth system, its dynamics and  history, the more chagrined I become at my own species’ destructive habits. On the whole, I think it’s fair to say that we trash the planet wherever we go. We clear out naturally-occurring biota, and replace it with shelters and infrastructure for ourselves. We hike trails in the woods for recreation, and Hansel-like, mark our way with candy wrappers, tissues, and cigarette butts. The more I have learned what a non-human-influenced Earth system looks like, the more disgusted I get at the human fingerprint. My environmentalism is strongly influenced by my geologic awareness.

Of course, there are the bigger issues than litter and housing developments, like our agriculture-facilitated denudation of the landscape, our chemically-facilitated erosion of the ultraviolet-screening layer of our atmosphere, and the CO2-facilitated warming of the planet’s average temperature. All of which have profound consequences not only for our neighbor species, but for ourselves. Without soil, ozone, or our coastal settlements, we’re increasingly screwed. We humans excel at shooting ourselves in the feet.

That point is the one that’s mostly likely to touch home with people: knowing our own selfishness, we environmentalists often ask our neighbors to adopt our views because it is in their own self-interest. We couch our activism in the language of harm to people, but I’ll admit that’s besides the point for me. I rank other species as inherently of value, in and of themselves, regardless of their benefit to humanity. I’ll admit that I have no scientific evidence to support this claim — it’s one of the few genuine “beliefs” that I hold. I believe other species deserve to exist, unmolested by us.

The elephant in the savanna is threatened by the elephant in the room: overpopulation of Homo sapiens. This morning, the world has 6.8 billion people on it, and tomorrow there will be even more. The rate of population growth is increasing at the same time that the resource consumption per individual is also increasing. The impact on the planet is astonishing. Life finds a way to adapt to our presence only in a general sense. The specifics, the particulars are being rubbed out. For ever individual pigeon or rat we gain, we lose a golden toad or an ivory-billed woodpecker. If the current rate of species extinction is perpetuated, then we are living through the start of the sixth great mass extinction of the Phanerozoic.

This broad view I take, where humans are not the pinnacle of anything, but something more akin to a cancer on the planet, is a grim one. When new medical treatments are announced, to the fanfare that they will extend human life, and prevent more people from dying, I wince a little. Longer lives are (probably) good for the ones living them, but a longer legacy of consumption makes things rougher for everyone and everything else. It’s the tragedy of the commons, written in lives.

The planet Earth would be a better place if there were fewer people on it. In no way do I advocate action to remove people from the planet — my sense of environmental duty does not trump my sense of ethics — but I can’t deny that I would prefer to live on a planet with only 1 billion people than the current crowd. This is a conundrum: I value the coherent functioning of the Earth system, but I also value individual human lives. I suppose the best thing you could do for the planet would be to kill yourself. Yet I find the experience of being alive so sweet: I couldn’t possibly give up that experience just for the sake of making the planet’s problems 1/6800000000th better. Where does this leave me? Confused, perhaps. Hypocritical, maybe. It’s a tough spot to be in.

One thing that I’ve decided is that I don’t want to bring any more humans into the system. I have made an ethical decision that I can prevent a small piece of that overpopulation by refusing to procreate myself. I’m surrounded by people spawning huge numbers of kids, and I find it distasteful. My brother, for instance, has four children. Though I love each and every one of them, I can’t deny that I’m taken aback by my brother’s profligacy every time my nieces and nephews swarm around me.

Another thing I’ve decided is to try and make my time here a net positive, rather than a net negative. Yes, I consume, but then I try to use that consumption as fuel for the education of my planetary peers. I teach, I blog, I discuss. I’m not sure that this is a success, but I don’t know what else to do.

The modern Earth Day encourages us to “be green,” one of the shallowest and least thoughtful phrases ever to be willingly adopted by the environmental movement. Along with this single ill-defined word (“green,” the color of envy and seasickness), comes a marketing campaign which is focused more on consumption than on sustainability. “Green” is a buzzword, a fad. It’s time in the spotlight is fading, as far as I can tell. A deeper sense of ecology is needed, something that can’t be summed up by a single phrase or a single color. We live on a finite object, a lone oasis in an incomprehensibly enormous inhospitable void. It astonishes me that we slap a coat of “green” on our unsustainable existence and think that makes a damn bit of difference. Because the Earth is larger than individual humans, we have a rough time conceding that it is finite. But “big” and “infinite” are not synonyms; we cannot long act as if they are.

I find my outlook for the Earth’s biosphere to be a grim one. A robust biosphere is incompatible with human society’s resource-consuming, habitat-altering, Earth-system-perturbing ways. I wish I could say I was hopeful that we would get it figured out, but I’m not. We are neck-deep in evidence that our lifestyles are unsustainable, but we persist regardless. Our selfishness takes priority over our moral duty, and that seems to be human nature. As long as humans are part of the system, I can’t see how the average human impulse for comfort, security, and reproduction won’t continue to put our neighbor species at a profound disadvantage.

So here’s what I plan to do this Earth Day: I’m going to learn a bit more about the Earth, and I’m going to teach a bit more about the Earth, and I’ll appreciate the day as one among an almost infinite number of rotations of this fine orb as it orbits our fine star. I’m not going to be “green,” I’m going to encourage a fuller understanding of our role in the terrestrial flow of matter and energy.

I’ll feel lucky to be here today, and hope that I still feel that way 40 years from now.

How will you spend your day? How will you spend your time on this planet?


9 Responses

  1. With things sounding so dire, it’s hard to be optimistic this Earth Day, Prof. Hearing all this about human overpopulation, mass extinctions and rapid climate change, I can’t help but feel like the previous generations have given me a broken plate representing Earth with them saying “Hey, you try fixing it. It’s your problem now.” Trying to gleam any hope out of news today, a guest on the Daily Show wrote a book about how he predicts the global human population to peak within the next generation and steadily decline afterward as family sizes shrink and the general population ages. Of course, by then, the damage humankind has done might be too severe. Even though it may feel like it, I try not to view the propagation of humankind as a cancer, but an unfortunate event in nature. Perhaps we can gain a better perspective or understanding on climate change when we don’t look through the prism of human exceptionalism but instead view ourselves and what we do as part of nature, albeit a negative aspect of nature. I hope what I’m saying makes sense.

    • It makes sense, yes. Sorry to be a downer on a day of celebration, but I see the wild places on the planet wasting away quickly. I don’t feel like there is much to celebrate: a few small victories, like the endangered species act, a shallow but pervasive awareness of environmental issues in western society, and Nixon’s finest legacy: the Clean Water Act. But compared to the onslaught of consumer society, of Growth for the sake of Growth, these few achievements are like islands in a dark and swollen river.

  2. You’ve spoken this very well. I was lucky enough to start seeing the problems we create for ourselves and (unfortunately) the other inhabitants of our planet at a young age. I have been tremendously influenced by poet/writer/environmentalist Gary Snyder, in particular his prose writings. Wendell Berry has also played a large part in my current “ecosophy”. I think that society is largely ignorant of the supreme interdependency of everything on our finite planet, and likely will only come to serious action when it is too late. Today, I am going to plant tomatoes in my garden (cucumber, squash, peppers, and onions will come later). I am planing on going to visit a nature preserve I have never been to about 12 miles away across the Illinois state line, and if time allows, I would like to construct a bat house, or at least get started on making one. Happy Earth Day!

    • Thanks, Brandon. Snyder and Berry have influenced my thinking, too. I think your plans for the day sound superb. Enjoy it!

  3. I agree with your take on the shear numbers of people, but our economies are based on growth (population and resource). I would love to see someone challenge the notion that you have to grow an economy for it to be successful (Patagonia tried it in the early 1990s).

    The other big issue I see with environmentalism is time. Most of us (even geology trained) cannot comprehend long periods of time, and effects that are decades, centuries or millenia out just do not matter, especially when a large percentage (I estimate 10-20% in my classes) expect Armaggedon to occur in our lifespan. If the rapture comes, who cares if we consumed more than our share?

    My post in my fledgling blog today was about what inspired me to become more environmentally minded, what about you, were there any “trigger” events that led you to your ideals?

    • Thanks for bringing up Ed Abbey (in the post). Few thinkers have had as large an effect on me as him. Time is a huge factor: both the immensity of it informing my view, and the perceived shortness of it informing fundamentalist Christian views (the Armageddonists I presume you’re referring to) . When time itself is an issue of contention, how can we hope to come to any kind of consensus on action?

  4. Thanks Callan for your heartfelt concern about what is happening all around us daily and that unfortunately many of us are not even aware, or care about or are distracted by other things, that we feel take priority (ie excessive consumerism, mindless entertainment, religious fantasies etc.) I feel a lot of that same anger grief and frustration about the situation.

    I also prefer not to see humans as a cancer, since we are also a product of evolution and we would not be here if random circumstances in Earth’s history and beyond had not made conditions possible for our emergence.

    Our modern culture though has given us this false idea that we have risen above nature and no longer need it. Many of us don’t even think about where our resources come from and the strain we put upon them daily.

    Human population does need to decrease, but there would be plenty for everyone right now if resources were not so disproportionally utilized and wastefully consumed. That is a thorny political and social issue without easy answers. Bascially though it asks for much more cooperation and much less competition which I have always felt is a trait we need to diminsh in our species because it is not serving our long term interest. It is a trait left over from our past when we had to compete to literally survive, but technology ,socialization and civilization has lessened that requirement or should have.

    I see our status as that we are stiil in our infancy, immature and unwise (not products of nonsenical original sin and therefore forever corrupt) and have not recognized how our lives are intimately connected to the biological health of this planet. If someone wants to be really pro-life then be inclusive to all the incredible processes and other organisms that make life as a whole possible not just for humans.

    I don’t know if we will find that needed wisdom in time to correct the grevious harm we are doing ultimately to ourselves, but I try to retain some hope. I find a lot of joy in my garden and just being out in nature as much as I can. I also try to make as little imapct as I can on the ecology, but it is hard in our society to be green!

    Even typing these words on this laptop in my lighted hotel room is consuming energy probably from some coal burning power plant!

  5. One more thought to all…if you can, give some money to local landtrusts and national, and international land conservancies. I feel that is one of the best individual ways to help preserve important ecological areas that are fast disappearing. There are some wonderful dedicated people in those groups working very hard and for little money to save what they can before it is gone.

  6. “my sense of environmental duty does not trump my sense of ethics”

    Think about that sentence for a second. Where does your sense of environmental duty come from, if not from your sense of ethics? I personally ‘believe’ that you can’t put an absolute value on life, for all life is equally valuable. A goose has just as much right to be alive as does a lion as does a deer as does a bat, tree, seagull, mountain, river, human, mosquito. Putting a hierchy of value on life is just stupid, but more to the point, it’s dangerous.

    You seem to agree. My right to have a cell-phone does not trump a bird’s right to life (200 migratory songbirds are killed each year for every cellphone tower in the states). This acknowledgement that I am not superior to other living beings, nor inferior (although my culture could certainly be called that) is where I get my sense of ethics. It’s also where I get my sense of “environmental duty.”

    Ethics and ‘environmental duty’ do not have to be in conflict. Saying that they are is falling prey to the paradigm of our civilization, that man is not a part of nature, but rather, in a war against it. You are not fighting a war against nature. Your culture is.

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