Cross posted at the NDN blog.
Forty years have passed since John McConnell, a peace activist and plastics pioneer, proposed the first Earth Day at a Unesco conference in San Francisco as a way to focus attention on our role as stewards of the planet. In that period, environmentalism has grown into a worldwide passion so ingrained that we routinely recycle bottles, paper and plastics and on Earth Day, at least in my small New York town, walk instead of drive children to school. In that sense Earth Day and environmentalism have been astonishingly successful.
At the same time, however, when we look about the planet it is clear that for all the steps taken so far the climate has actually gotten worse. Environmentalism can celebrate major victories in the United States of cleaning up our air and our water. However, we have meanwhile developed millions of acres of land with almost no regard for the environment. And the rise of China, India and the other rapidly developing countries has virtually doubled sources of pollution. Moreover, science suggests that it has been precisely during the last decade or so of human history that the earth’s climate has begun to experience dramatic stress from people as our greenhouse emissions have altered the earth’s absorption of energy from the sun.
As an optimist, I belive the world will collectively meet these challenges which are fundamentally about managing growth. The key element, recognized by McConnell when he chose the Unesco conference to propose the idea of Earth Day, is global cooperation. The last Administration retreated from working with other countries. The new Administration has redidicated itself to solving climate change but faces immense challenges, particularly, in the weak global economy.
Most major action is precipitated only by crisis. When the threat is is both distant and global rather than local in nature, acting in advance is that much more difficult. The foresight demonstrated at Rio, Kyoto, and the other key international meetings on the environment are, therefore, remarkable in history. But science suggests that cooperation is not only remarkable, but also vital to our survival.
On this Earth Day, therefore, I believe we should honor the idea of preserving the planet. But we also honor the key element in achieving that goal, namely working together to solve the problem. Not so coincidentally, 40 years ago, man first landed on the moon and people first saw the famous picture of the earth from the moon. What they saw was a fragile planet, no bigger than a pea in Neal Armstrong’s words, but for the first time, the whole earth as one, with one set of challenges, hopes and possibilities and a single destiny.