50 years of “Earth Day” and what lessons have we learned?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration. In my usual fashion, I feel the need to point out how obvious of a contradiction it is to celebrate the earth when most of the people who live on this planet don’t even understand the delicate and intricate systems that make the earth what it is.
“…um, Jennifer… Earth Day has already come and gone. No one is interested in this anymore, we’ve all moved on to the next trending topic. So passé, duh!”
Yes, I’m aware that “earth day” is over.
However, the earth is still here and so are we (for now) and we’re lucky bastards to be able to call this place home. Plus, I wanted to make this a science based article which takes a bit longer, so sue me.
This also raises a couple of questions for me: Why do we only “celebrate” the earth one day or month a year and why is it usually done in a quintessential consumer-driven cultural way with some rich celebrity posting a picture of themself flashing the peace sign while out in nature somewhere with some cliche caption and #weloveyouearth written underneath the photo? Or by buying a t-shirt with some slogan on it in regards to saving the planet?
The irony of this is painfully obvious and laughable (laughing only to avoid crying) considering the wealthy produce more carbon pollution and the life cycle of a t-shirt goes against the sustainability of earth’s life systems.
“Jennifer, please stop being a “negative Nancy” and let us enjoy our celebratory day. Why do you care so much? It makes us feel good to declare “earth day” every year and that’s all that matters!!”
Well, first of all I’m more of a “reality Rachel” 😉
Second, we have to stop reducing every major problem we have on earth down to a simple day of recognition with zero understanding of the problem itself.
… don’t get me wrong this lovely planet we call Earth definitely deserves to be celebrated and more importantly cherished.
This should be done EVERY day.
Planet Earth is a dazzling combination of physical and chemical reactions composed of rock and mineral compounds with a unique atmosphere, whirling in infinite space. Peering down on this blue ball of molten rock it looks so tranquil and unified; ever evolving in its natural processes.
Almost as if it doesn’t have a care in the… um, world.
In fact, let’s take a moment to appreciate this magnificent planet and remember how lucky we are to call this place home…
This awesome planet provides us with everything we need to live a cozy, fulfilling, exciting life.
Perhaps if people truly understood how the earth operates and the effects we have on this planet then maybe they’d have a genuine appreciation for this magnificent place.
Understanding the Earth’s system
It’s important to understand that the earth is a system governed by a larger order of universal systems. We humans are only one small part of that system; just like all the other living creatures that reside here on planet earth. We need to respect the earth’s ecosystem and the community of living organisms that allow us humans to exist.
We can compare the operation of the earth to our bodies. Our bodies are a series of systems such as: cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, immune, nervous, muscular, skeletal, and so on.
Each system performs a specific task, yet works in harmony to make up one holistic system. All of the organs in your body are interdependent and their function directly relates to your health. Say your kidneys malfunction then your body will not be able to filter waste, regulate blood pressure, make red blood cells, maintain healthy bones, and control your pH levels.
Not only are systems composed of interdependent relationships but also feedback processes.
Feedback loops are inevitable in any system. A feedback is like a dial; we can turn it up and create a “positive” feedback which accelerates the action or turn it down to create a “negative” feedback which slows an action.
Nature is a self-regulating system, meaning it will self correct when necessary. It’s feedback loops are at a peaceful equilibrium.
By the way, this is how a true system operates 😉
In contrast, humans have created man-made systems, I.e. our modern day economy, which requires a lot of intervening on our part to try and correct and yet it still fails.
The failures of modern economics are blatantly evident when you observe its interference with the earth’s natural systems and the harm it creates.
We need nature, nature doesn’t need us.
Our “economy” is nothing more than a competitive game where we gamble on the distribution of the earth’s limited resources. This creates a wasteful consumption cycle of continually extracting and dumping resources causing widespread destruction of fragile ecosystems.
Tampering with the very environment that supports our species’ livelihood at such a high rate creates all sorts of feedback loops.
In our short time on this planet humans have rearranged earth’s natural system to such a great extent that this latest era is now known as the Anthropocene.
We destroy natural habitats to build cities, roadways, and railways. Forests are cleared to fulfill our insatiable agricultural appetite and the never ending demands of the logging business. We trample and kill endangered species with hunting, tourism, the fashion, palm oil industries. We repeatedly mine precious minerals for electronics, extract oil and overfish for the seafood industry as if these are infinitely abundant resources… and so on and so on.
Globally, wildlife populations have decreased by 60% since 1970 due to human activity. (Source)
Areas known as biodiversity hotspots used to occupy 16% of the entire earth’s land surface but have since shrunk down to a mere 2% since humans started exploiting them. These rich bio diverse reservoirs house the most unique forms of flora and fauna on planet earth. That accounts for 50% of vascular plant species and 42% of land vertebrates found specifically in these regions. (Source)
To put things into context, amphibians who have survived several mass extinctions are now going extinct at a rate 45,000 times faster than normal. And this is just one group of species that are included in this massive decline. Everything from microscopic organisms to Rhinos, you name it…. well, even unnamed species are at threat of going extinct before we get the chance to identify them.
Rich levels of biodiversity are super important to the function, health and well-being of our planet and therefore important to the health and ultimately the survival of our species.
As these robust ecosystems dwindle, we lose crucial “ecoservices” such as protection of water sources and fresh water flow; soil formation and protection; nutrient storage and recycling; genetic diversity; or the ever important carbon capture from forests.
The earth’s forests absorb 2.4 gigatonnes of CO2 a year. That’s approximately ⅓ of the CO2 the world releases from burning fossil fuels. However, the rate of deforestation and degradation happening worldwide releases double the CO2 than what is being stored. (Source)
Just so you can wrap your mind around that 5 gigantones is equal to the mass of 30 million blue whales.
So, this kinda opens another can of worms because now we can see how biodiversity loss leads to climate change as well, and excuse me if I’m curt but if you don’t know about climate change by now then you need to get your head out of your ass.
Biodiversity loss, destruction of ecosystems and climate change, whether we care to admit it or not, all directly contribute to our own potential extinction.
Although it may feel like we’ve always been here and always will be here; we are the dominant species and have rearranged nature to fit our narrative.
However, that is simply not the case!
Our existence on this planet is just one tiny grain of sand in the giant hourglass of earth’s existence and I’d say in the last 50 years it’s become ever more apparent that if we want to continue to exist we need to reevaluate our relationship with nature.
Throughout many epochs, earth has experienced many different climate changes and this has caused many different species to come and go on a large scale — even our distant cousins in the hominid family.
This is something we refer to as “mass extinction”.
Every mass extinction in earths history has been due to natural changes, say if a giant asteroid hits earth or a massive volcano erupts that then sets off chain reactions. These natural biosystem changes have always happened at a modest pace, occurring over a course of hundreds of millions of years.
However, these days it’s a much different story. We are entering the “earth’s 6th mass extinction” with catastrophic changes happening at an alarming rate.
Guess what. We’re to blame…
Think of it this way, without microbes we could not eat or breathe. Without us, microbes would likely be perfectly fine, still living their best lives 😀
“Okay, Jennifer… you’ve succeeded in making me feel bad about not knowing the depth of our actions on our home planet. So, what can I do about it?”
My goal here is not to blame individuals or make anyone feel bad or hopeless.
Rather I’d like to empower people through knowledge 😉 I want to show you all that we have the tools necessary to work our way out of this mess we just have to be bold and brave enough to face the truth. Honestly, the biggest form of “activism” is to properly educate yourself with science backed sources.
Use the tools above. I promise you won’t regret it. 😉
Also, it doesn’t hurt to live a minimalist lifestyle too, but it’s important to also recognize that true change has to happen at a societal level.
Which brings me to my next point of discussion (dun,dun,dunnnn…)
We here on earth have another annual day of recognition known as “Earth overshoot day”. The date marked is different every year but it is quite important that we keep track of it.
Why? Well, first of all, we have something that we call an ecological footprint. When we take resources from the earth and leave carbon behind in the process we leave a “footprint” behind as well. Calculating our footprint annually tells us how many resources we consume as a global society.
In contrast, it’s also very important to know how many of those same resources the Earth can reproduce and how much carbon storage can take place in a year.
If our footprint oversteps the carrying capacity of the earth’s ability to replenish the resources then we go into overshoot.
Currently, on average it would take 1.7 earths to produce the amount of resources humans consume in a year and every year earth overshoot day comes sooner and sooner. (Source)
In addition we can monitor the ‘earth’s health’ through something known as the “living planet index”. This gives us a good idea of biodiversity levels. This is similar to checking your blood pressure to maintain good health. If your blood pressure is too high or low, you can adjust your habits to get back to good health.
Understanding this information provides us with the ability to intelligently manage the finite resources of planet earth and make sure we align ourselves properly within earth’s ecosystem.
The question is ‘will we be smart enough to use these tools for our benefit?’
The current conundrum
Rather than being concerned with each region’s biocapacity levels our society is much more focused on something known as “GDP or Gross Domestic Product”. The GDP is an artificial system based on trade and is measured through the monetary value of the total amount of items produced within a certain region and time.
This is nothing more than a game that is described as “arcane” (mysterious and understood by few) by those who benefit the most from it.
Fuck that! Why should only a handful of people on earth understand how this works and therefore decide on the allocation of vital earth resources; making decisions that affect all of us?
Let’s get rid of the secrecy that shuns us from knowing how this game works!
Here’s the rules: we measure how many points (income) each individual player (citizen) in each team (tribe/country) has and how many prized possessions (import/exports) each team trades.
This number is very important to the function of the market system game. The sum of all the above gives each team a rank or a score telling us which tribes have gained the most tokens (money).
**This game is the reason why most people associate productivity with “economic growth” and have a hard time separating the two.
In order for a tribe to have a high ranking “GDP” they must continually produce items to sell to the public. If the items do not break down and become unappealing then people will not want to continually buy more.
This would cause the game to end.
The sole objective for each competing team is to get a greater advantage over others. This requires the teams to produce these items at the lowest possible monetary cost so that their monetary gain is higher.
This is how they get the most tokens and therefore the highest amount of points.
The more tokens and points the more power you have.
Although this is just a silly game of play pretend, many of its players take this shit way too seriously. The price we pay to play this global trade game is not measured in dollars but in wasted human lives and also irreparable ecological destruction.
This loss is much greater than the benefits.
Although it is not the players direct intent for negative side effects to take place as a result of playing this game, the most powerful players are not incentivized to do the “right thing”. Despite laws or the (so-called) “morals and ethics” of individual or group players, when bad things happen as a consequence of this game then the players will find ways around taking responsibility for their actions.
For instance, in order for a rich tribe to make a hefty profit they generally force their way in by means of war or by becoming loan sharks to the disadvantaged poor tribes. They enslave the poorer people in “developing nations”, stealing their resources by pillaging and polluting the land that they live off of.
The items confiscated go to another part of the world where a different group of poor people are coerced into assembling the goods. Then these goods get shipped to the working poor of the western world who slave their lives away to buy this junk that then ends up in a landfill after a short period of time. At which point, it’s time to buy more.
This cyclical cycle is our “economy” and as a result we are left with pollution, exploitation, public health problems, resource overshoot, species extinction, violence, biodiversity loss and much more.
You may be thinking: “This is so horrible! How can we, as a society keep ignoring all of these bad side effects and keep going along with a faulty system that causes all of these problems?”
For most, it is very easy to forget or ignore the consequences of our lifestyles. Our lives are so fast paced we need to have everything at our disposal, ready and convenient. We live in a society that teaches us that we are individuals, separate entities, responsible for our own actions and that we have “free will” to choose between “right and wrong”. So, we think we are separate from nature and that we can continue this “biological annihilation” without any direct repercussions to our own species. We are also taught that if we want change this must be on an individual level.
However, as we can see, not only are we an interconnected species but we are connected to all of earth’s living species.
I remember as a kid asking a lot of questions about how our social system operates and our effects on the environment. I was told not to worry about it, that I was too young to ask such questions. Now, looking back, I’m sure my grandparents didn’t actually know the answer to those questions either.
This is just part of our culture and most people accept it as “normal”. We aren’t encouraged to ask ‘where do these items come from and why are they made so poorly?’ or ‘Why do we choose important items simply based on their looks rather than function?’ and ‘What do we plan to do about all this waste?’
Instead we are trained to consume.
These questions above are difficult to answer because it’s a systemic problem. In order to fix the problems from which these questions arise, you would have to disassemble our system, examine it and rebuild it and as we learned in the previous sections, most people don’t understand things like “GDP” or how the earth’s systems operate and therefore don’t even know what questions to ask.
Thinking about things on such a large scale is a bit overwhelming for a lot of people, so it’s just easier to ignore it all together. We are taught that we have no business meddling in such matters.
Plus, we have been so heavily trained to consume. That our sole purpose is to work, buy stuff, work, buy stuff. This is our way of life, our identity. We are taught to be sentimental over stuff. Our stuff represents our personalities and is symbolic of the “fruits of our labor”. We give stuff as a form of affection and so on.
Our man-made system has declared war on the Earth’s ecosystem
One last thing I’d like to mention is nuclear warfare. This is another consequence of this game. Since the entire earth has been split into imaginary tribes that fight over the planet’s finite resources, some thought it would be a good idea to create these highly destructive bombs.
“Yeah, but nuclear war hasn’t been a threat for decades! Why even mention it?”
War in general is destructive to ALL life on earth however, nuclear war is on a whole different level of destructiveness.
Currently there are 9 tribes on earth that possess nuclear weapons and if even a small fraction of the total amount, say like 50-100 Hiroshima sized bombs were detonated then this would set off feedback loops that last for at least a decade that could potentially erase all life on earth.
All it takes is one conflict between two tribes.
The massive plumes of smoke that rise from the initial explosion and the fires that would ensue would send hot air up to mix with cold air in higher atmospheric layers. This would create violent and unsteady gusts of air, which then create powerful, chaotic pyromaniac clouds.
How? Well, when all of the back and forth interactions between hot and cold air occurs it creates a new, more intense thunderstorm which then creates lightning, which then may start a new fire.
Obviously hot and cold air do not play nice together. When combined lots of energy is created and the outcome is a fury of wind storms or even a tornado that may occur. This wind can pick up embers and hurl them like fireballs, change the direction of the fire, and/or create fire tornados.
Large amounts of smoke would cause tons of black carbon to propel high into earth’s troposphere like tiny rockets. This particulate matter is anti-reflective due to its dark color allowing it to absorb a lot of heat from the sun. The solar heat allows these tiny particles to shoot up even further into the stratosphere where it can affect the global climate.
This reaction also creates a “shield” that blocks the sun’s radiation from reaching the earth which then lowers surface temperatures. This shield of hot air traps the smoke and the cooler temperatures. This is an inversion. This is when normal weather conditions are flip flopped. Typically, the further you travel into the earth’s atmosphere the cooler the air temperature becomes. However in this situation the warmer air in the upper atmosphere acts as a cap which prevents smoke from escaping, which further blocks the sun and further lowers the surface temperature, where this cycle repeats itself.
This is what is known as “nuclear winter”. This is different from what happens when CO2 is trapped in the atmosphere which acts as a blanket that retains the sun’s radiation, causing temperature on earth to rise.
The long term effects of this would drastically decrease crop yields due to lower temperatures and lower rainfall averages, causing widespread famine. In addition, the intense heat in the atmosphere would cause ozone depletion allowing large levels of harmful UV radiation to hit earth along with any human health effects from nuclear radiation and smoke inhalation. Source: 1, 2, 3, 4)
If this information isn’t enough to shake you then I’m not sure what it will take to get the majority of you to realize that maintaining economic growth is counterintuitive to maintaining an equilibrium with the ecosystem that we humans rely on.
We can’t continue to rely on our current system because we see what that leads to…
This demented game has us all living in a prison when we could be living in paradise. And I don’t mean that in a spiritualistic sense. I mean that we have the necessary resources, the tools, the know-how and ability to provide every person on earth a high standard of living.
This means everyone on earth has their basic needs met without the use of coercion. No more competition, division, violence and destruction.
If humans can learn to let go of these harmful traditions and rituals and recognize that we are just one piece of a universal puzzle then we will truly be able to celebrate the earth.