EARTH DAY PLUS THIRTY, AS SEEN BY THE EARTH
By Donella Meadows, adjunct professor at Dartmouth College.
If, in the thirty Earth Day celebrations we have held since 1970, the human population and economy have become any more respectful of the Earth, the Earth hasn't noticed.
The planet is not impressed by fancy speeches. Leonardo DiCaprio interviewing Bill Clinton about global warming is not an Earth-shaking event. The Earth has no way of registering good intentions or future inventions or high hopes. It doesn't even pay attention to dollars, which are, from a planet's point of view, just a charming human invention. Planets measure only physical things-energy and materials and their flows into and out of the changing populations of living creatures.
What the Earth sees is that on the first Earth Day in 1970 there were 3.7 billion of those hyperactive critters called humans, and now there are over 6 billion.
Back in 1970 those humans drew from the Earth's crust 46 million barrels of oil every day-now they draw 78 million.
Natural gas extraction has nearly tripled in thirty years, from 34 trillion cubic feet per year to 95 trillion. We mined 2.2 billion metric tons in 1970; this year we'll mine about 3.8 billion. The planet feels this fossil fuel use in many ways, as the fuels are extracted (and spilled) and shipped (and spilled) and refined (generating toxics) and burned into numerous pollutants, including carbon dioxide, which traps outgoing energy and warms things up. Despite global conferences and brave promises, what the Earth notices is that human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million this year.
You would think that an unimaginably huge thing like a planet would not notice the one degree (Fahrenheit) warming it has experienced since 1970. But on the scale of a whole planet, one degree is a big deal, especially since it is not spread evenly. The poles have warmed more than the equator, the winters more than the summers, the nights more than the days. That means that temperature DIFFERENCES from one place to another have been changing much more than the average temperature has changed. Temperature differences are what make winds blow, rains rain, ocean current flow.
All creatures, including humans, are exquisitely attuned to the weather. All creatures, including us, are noticing weather weirdness and trying to adjust, by moving, by fruiting earlier or migrating later, by building up whatever protections are possible against flood and drought. The Earth is reacting to weather changes too, shrinking glaciers, splitting off nation-sized chunks of Antarctic ice sheet, enhancing the cycles we call El Nino and La Nina.
"Earth Day, Shmearth Day," the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts. "Are you folks ever going to take me seriously?"
Since the first Earth Day our global vehicle population has swelled from 246 to 730 million. Air traffic has gone up by a factor of six. The rate at which we grind up trees to make paper has doubled (to 200 million metric tons per year). We coax from the soil, with the help of strange chemicals, 2.25 times as much wheat, 2.5 times as much corn, 2.2 times as much rice, almost twice as much sugar, almost four times as many soybeans as we did thirty years ago. We pull from the oceans almost twice as much fish.
With the fish we can see clearly how the planet behaves, when we push it too far. It does not feel sorry for us; it just follows its own rules. Fish become harder and harder to find. If they are caught before they're old enough to reproduce, if their nursery habitat is destroyed, if we scoop up not only the cod, but the capelin upon which the cod feeds, the fish may never come back. The Earth does not care that we didn't mean it, that we promise not to do it again, that we make nice gestures every Earth Day.
We have among us die-hard optimists who will berate me for not reporting the good news since the last Earth Day. There is plenty of it, but it is mostly measured in human terms, not Earth terms. Average human life expectancy has risen since 1970 from 58 to 66 years. Gross world product has more than doubled, from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. Recycling has increased, but so has trash generation, so the Earth receives more garbage than ever before. Wind and solar power generation have soared, but so have coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear generation.
In human terms there has been breathtaking progress. In 1970 there weren't any cell phones or video players. There was no Internet; there were no dot-coms. Nor was anyone infected with AIDS, of course, nor did we have to worry about genetic engineering. Global spending on advertising was only one-third of what it is now (in inflation-corrected dollars). Third-World debt was one-eighth of what it is now.
Whether you call any of that progress, it is all beneath the notice of the Earth. What the Earth sees is that its species are vanishing at a rate it hasn't seen in 65 million years. That 40 percent of its agricultural soils have been degraded. That half its forests have disappeared and half its wetlands have been filled or drained, and that despite Earth Day, all these trends are accelerating.
Earth Day is beginning to remind me of Mother's Day, a commercial occasion upon which you buy flowers for the person who, every other day of the year, cleans up after you. Guilt-assuaging. Trivializing. Actually dangerous. All mothers have their breaking points. Mother Earth does not soften hers with patience or forgiveness or sentimentality.
1. Consume less. Everything people do, including eating (especially meat), watering lawns, heating homes and driving cars, consumes resources. Everything people buy requires resources to produce and ship. Be conscious of all the small decisions you make in your everyday life that increase the total human impact on the planet.
2. Choose to have fewer (or no) children. The pressure on Earth's resources by its ever-increasing human population is one of the most dire issues that the planet faces.
3. Learn what types of fish are in danger of being overfished and don't buy them at the store or order them in restaurants. The United Nations site offers background information. For specific recommendations on which fish are caught and farmed in ways that support a healthy environment, check out Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's site.
4. Consider driving a smaller or hybrid car. Of course, buying a new car equals more consumption, so approach this issue with some caution. But if you're already looking for a new car, get one that's energy efficient.
5. Support international agreements to limit the output of greenhouse gases. Reduce your own energy use as much as possible.
6. Downsize your life.
7. Buy organic food. Pesticides take a toll on the environment and frequently spawn pesticide-resistant pests. Buying organic food directly from the growers supports small farms and promotes biodiversity.
8. Lend your energy to protecting the drinking water supply on both micro and macro levels. Access to and availability of clean drinking water is a growing global crisis. Cut back on personal water use with water-wise gardens (How to Design a Dry Garden) and promote development of sound water policies in your town or region (How to Manage Growth in Your Community). Or join forces with scientists working to perfect the difficult and expensive process of desalinization
United Nations diplomats on Wednesday will set aside pressing issues of international peace and security to devote an entire day debating the rights of “Mother Earth.” A bloc of mostly socialist governments lead by Bolivia have put the issue on the General Assembly agenda to discuss the creation of a U.N. treaty that would grant the same rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Mother Nature.
Treaty supporters want the establishment of legal systems to maintain balance between human rights and what they perceive as the inalienable rights of other members of the Earth community -- plants, animals, and terrain.
Communities and environmental activists would be given more legal power to monitor and control industries and development to ensure harmony between humans and nature. Though the United States and other Western governments are supportive of sustainable development, some see the upcoming event, “Harmony with Nature,” as political grandstanding -- an attempt to blame environmental degradation and climate change on capitalism.
“The concept ‘Mother Earth’ is not universally accepted,” said a spokesman from the British Mission to the U.N. about Bolivia’s proposal. “In general, our view is that we should focus on tackling important sustainable development issues through existing channels and processes.”
The General Assembly two years ago passed a Bolivia-led resolution proclaiming April 22 as “International Mother Earth Day.” The measure was endorsed by all 192 member states. But Bolivian President Evo Morales envisioned much more, vowing in a speech to U.N. delegates that a global movement had begun to lay “out a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.”
Morales, who repeatedly says “the central enemy of Mother Earth is capitalism,” called for creating a charter that defends the right to life for all living things. Morales, who was named World Hero of Mother Earth by the General Assembly, has since made great strides in his campaign.
In January, Bolivia became the world’s first nation to grant the natural environment equal rights to humans. Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth is heavily influenced by the spiritual indigenous Andean world outlook that revolves around the earth deity Pachamama, roughly translated to Mother Earth.
The Bolivian law establishes 11 rights for nature that include: the right to life and to exist; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered; the right to have nature’s processes free from human alteration. The law also establishes a Ministry of Mother Earth to act as an ombudsman, which will ensure nature is “not being affected my mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”
Emboldened by this triumph, Morales’ goal is to emulate his domestic achievement as a U.N. treaty. In a 2008 address to a U.N. forum on indigenous people, he said the first step in saving the Earth is to “eradicate capitalism” and to force wealthy industrialized countries to “pay their environmental debt.” Morales presented 10 points, or Evo’s Ten Commandments, as they are affectionately called by devotees, to save the planet.
Among them is a call to end the capitalist system, and a world without imperialism or colonialism. Respect for Mother Earth is Commandment 6. U.N. critics slammed the decision to devote an entire day debating Mother Earth legislation as not only a waste of time and resources, but a major blunder.
“The UN is a one-act show,” said U.N. watchdog Anne Bayefsky, of Eye on the U.N., in which “Western democracies are responsible for the world’s ills and developing countries are perpetual victims.”
Bayefsky said the General Assembly’s focus on Mother Earth distracts from more pressing issues and problems at the U.N.
“The rights of inanimate objects violated by developed countries are considered a useful focal point this month,” she said, adding that, “Syria is scheduled to be elected next month to the U.N.’s top “human” rights body, and Iran is on the U.N.’s top women’s rights body.” Syria is one of the sponsors of the “Mother Earth” treaty.
Bolivia’s ambassador to the U.N., Pablo Solon, who will represent Morales at the debate and ‘expert’ panel discussions at U.N. headquarters, said, “Presently many environmentally harmful human activities are completely legal,” including those that cause climate change.
“If legal systems recognized the rights of other-than-human beings,” he says, such as mountains, rivers, forests and animals, “courts and tribunals could deal with the fundamental issues of environmental contamination.”
It is not clear if Bolivia’s new tough environmental laws will actually go as far as to protect life forms like insects, but the legislation does include all living creatures.