Is Earth Day Off Its Axis?
Earth Day is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. It is a global event with more than an estimated 1 billion people in 192 countries raising awareness of environmental issues. But would the founder of Earth Day be happy at the current state of this worldwide day of recognition?
The goal of Earth Day 2018 is to mobilize the world to “End Plastic Pollution.” The National Geographic Society estimates there are over 5 TRILLION pieces of plastic floating around our oceans. That’s 10 times more than all the stars in our galaxy. In addition to the plastic toys, chairs, and other objects we purchase, an average American consumes over his or her lifetime an estimated 44,300 plastic, glass, and aluminum cans and bottles of water, soda, juices, milk and various other non alcoholic liquids beverages. Many of these containers don’t make it into landfills and end up on our roads and in our waterways. Obviously, plastic pollution is an enormous problem for our environment, but does this specific focus ignore one of the overarching principles its founder was trying to emphasize by establishing this annual day of recognition?
The founder of Earth Day, the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), was one of the great environmental heroes of America. Drawing on his experience as the “Conservation Governor” of Wisconsin, Nelson’s success in bringing the environment to the forefront of Washington politics signified the beginning of an era of bold federal legislation, including the Environmental Protection Act, and the growth of the modern environmental movement. As part of his campaign to create a national environmental agenda, he made the case for the inextricable link between the global population and the health and wellness of our planet. Nelson understood that no matter how much we may try to lessen the impact we have on nature, through recycling, conservation or lowering our consumption of resources, each one of us alters the environment in which we live.
Over time, he became very frustrated with mainstream environmental organizations’ retreat from advocating limits to population growth. Instead, they chose to focus more on safer, more visible issues like urban sprawl, traffic congestion, endangered animals, dam removal, clean air initiatives, forest conservation and climate change. In a March 2000 speech, Senator Nelson opined, “Will there be any wilderness left? Any quiet place? Any habitat for song birds? Waterfalls? Other wild creatures? Not much.”
Will we forget and ultimately fail in achieving Gaylord Nelson’s goal of forming “a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality of human life on par with gross national product?” Or, will the Green movement that now celebrates Earth Day heed his wisdom and foresight and reignite an honest and forthright dialogue on the fundamental cause of all of our environmental crises? Overpopulation.
At the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award Ceremony this year, one film thought to be an odds-on favorite was conspicuously absent. Despite its big budget, bankable star and blockbuster marketing campaign, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” ended a disappointing run as the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed 2006 original film, “An Inconvenient Truth” by being snubbed completely by the Academy and the filmgoing public. And deservedly so.
An Inconvenient Truth detailed the perilous increase in world greenhouse gas emissions and Gore’s dispiriting fight to reverse their effects on climate change. Eleven years later, An Inconvenient Sequel showcases his high-profile Climate Reality Project, an effort to educate and energize volunteers to promote the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Power Plan. The sequel also attempted to take a more optimistic approach to the climate change discussion by highlighting the dramatic increase of renewable energy adoption across the globe. Among the success stories the film touts is Georgetown, Texas, which has adopted 100% renewable energy despite being lead by a pro-business Republican mayor. At the end of the movie, the audience is lead to believe we are on the path to a safe, prosperous and sustainable world because of the rapid growth of renewable energy.
What Al Gore conveniently does not reveal in his sequel is that, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2017, oil, gas, and coal burning have increased twice as fast as the growth in renewable energy in the same period since An Inconvenient Truth was released. In fact, the growth of fossil fuel use in the past 11 years exceeds all the world’s existing solar, wind, hydropower and biologically-derived energy combined.
Whether the Academy recognized this filtering of facts to fit a preconceived story narrative, or didn’t find the film compelling for another reason, is hard to know. What would have been more powerful from such a leader on climate change is the real inconvenient truth: We are losing the climate war of the past decade by attempting to reverse greenhouse gases. Perhaps the film would have been nominated if Gore had explored the fundamental cause of the growth in global energy demand and why 21 of the 37 major aquifers in the world continue to diminish at alarming rates, 13 million acres are lost to deforestation every year, 90% of the world’s fisheries are in peril, and why five times as many plastics in our oceans than stars in our galaxy.
Since Gore’s original film release in 2006 the earth has added 80,000,000 more people every year, all of whom require water, food, clothing, shelter and cooking fuel, and who desire reliable electricity, transportation and many other goods and services. Almost a billion more people.
That is the Real Inconvenient Truth.
Not being afraid to address our numbers openly and rationally is the path to the best achievable solution to climate change and all of our other environmental emergencies.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I tasted acrid air thick with smoke from burning trash, smoldering rice fields, charcoal cooking fires, and exhaust from the legion of motorbikes, tuk tuks and trucks clogging the streets of Delhi, India. Delhi is considered the 3rd largest city (behind Tokyo-Yakahama and Jakarta) in the world with more than 26 million residents. Yet, in 1950 there were just over 1 million residents. This exponential growth has hindered the government’s ability to keep pace with providing clean water, sewage treatment, waste management and clean air. As a result, the city has suffered a shocking deterioration, not only in the quality of its natural systems but in the quality of life for its residents.
After filming some recycling initiatives and the poisoned Yamuna river that runs through the heart of Delhi, the 8 Billion Angels crew and I traveled to an area in the southern part of India that, in contrast, seemed like it belongs on another planet. Kerala, a state on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, has nearly 600km of Arabian Sea shoreline. It is known for its palm-lined beaches and network of canals. Inland, are the Western Ghats, mountains whose slopes support tea, coffee and spice plantations as well as wildlife. National parks like Eravikulam and Periyar, plus Wayanad and other sanctuaries, are home to elephants, langur monkeys and tigers.What is the difference between Kerala and its neighbors to the north? Kerala has a fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman, far lower than India’s average of 2.4 and even lower than the United States at 1.85. The result is a state that offers both a high quality of life for all its citizens and a level of environmental sustainability that has allowed for nature to thrive.
During our stay, we met and interviewed Kerala’s representative in parliament, Shashi Tharoor, who described to us the Kerala Model. “You’ve got a huge culture of openness, of coexistence, of literacy, education, and the empowerment of women. When women are in charge of their own destiny, when they are educated, when they’re in employment, and when they are essentially able to decide things like how many kids they have, and space them, and so on and so forth, and when you got the kind of human development that ensures that those kids survive, then you won’t have more children.”
Shrink Your Carbon Footprint and Heal the Planet
The average American pigs out at the proverbial fossil fuel trough by consuming goods and services that add 20 tons of Greenhouse gases (CO2) annually to our atmosphere and oceans. By comparison, the average global citizen consumes and emits 5 tons of CO2 annually. Based on 7.5 billion people, the world needs to reach an average of 2.5 tons per person annually to prevent our pending climate and extinction emergencies.
What carbon diet choice resolutions are you willing to make?
These small changes are relatively simple and can help:
- Hanging your clothes outside to dry instead of Clothes dryer saves .21 tons CO2 annually
- Recycling everything possible saves .22 tons CO2 annually
- Washing clothes in cold water saves .25 tons CO2 annually
- Driving a Prius or another hybrid car saves .5 tons CO2 annually
- Not eating meat or fish saves .8 tons CO2 annually
But why not resolve in 2018 to make the changes that will have the greatest impact toward fulfilling your goal of being the “biggest loser” of carbon consumption:
- Switching from a gas-powered car to an all electric car saves 1.3 tons CO2 annually
- Buying green energy saves 1.5 tons CO2 annually
- Taking 1 less transatlantic flight saves 1.6 tons CO2 annually
- Living car-free saves 2.4 tons CO2 annually
And the biggest thing anyone can do to help the planet:
- Having 1 less child saves 58 tons CO2 annually
For each child we bear we are responsible for 50% of his or her carbon emissions for their entire lifetime. When you add up the carbon legacy of each subsequent generation it equals 60 tons of CO2 saved annually having one less child.
If you are past childbearing age, you can still help by promoting the benefits of a small family ethic among friends and family.
Pope Francis recently met with a delegation of Pacific leaders urging leaders to curb heat-trapping emissions and blasting “shortsighted human activity” for global warming, rising sea levels, and the overfishing and pollution of the oceans.
There is no question curbing heat-trapping emissions is critical in helping our earth’s natural systems remain in balance, but what about soil erosion, water scarcity, deforestation, loss of natural habitat, increasing extinction rates, depletion of fisheries, and the pollution in the waters, on the land and in the air?
Does the Pope understand the common thread and upstream cause of all this ecological devastation? He should….
To demonstrate to the world that faith and science are inextricably linked AND compatible with church teachings, the Catholic Church established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the mid- 19th century. Today, that venerable organization is made up of approximately 80 scientists from around the world, a quarter, on average, of whom are Nobel laureates.
In conjunction with the Pontifical Council for the Family, which consists of an international group of Bishops and Cardinals, the Academy and Council issued a report in 1994 entitled Population and Resources which detailed the results of human interaction with the natural world, including resource extraction, food production, and water use, along with various other global economic, social, cultural and educational trends. Their report concluded:
“It does not seem possible that population can grow indefinitely in the long term. With the capacity humans have acquired to control sickness and death, which will plausibly increase, it is now consequently unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birthrate beyond 2.3 children per couple to guarantee replacement. The contrary demographic consequences would be unsustainable to the point of absurdity…. Given the long-term consequences created by the decline of mortality, there is an inescapable need for global containment of births, which must be met with scientific and economic progress and all the intellectual and moral energies of mankind to assure respect, equity, and social justice among all parts of the planet, and between present and future generations.”
Scientists agree we are consuming our global resources far faster than the ability of the earth to regenerate or absorb the wastes created from that consumption. We would have to cut global consumption in half in order to give our natural systems and the species that depend on them a fighting chance.
As global standards of living improve, it is only human nature for all of us to want to live a better life, eat a better diet, have reliable electricity, affordable transportation, and comfortable shelter. If the Pope truly wants to lead us down a more just, peaceful and prosperous path, it means (unlike his predecessors) adopting his own Pontifical Academy’s findings and shouting unabashedly to the world that human numbers matter, matter a lot, and that the Church embraces a small family ethic.