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Earth Day then, Earth Day now: ages apart

By Larry Rasmussen


By the late 1960s, air and water pollution had already achieved serious environmental damage in the USA. Acid rain damaged forests, smog plagued cities, and suburban sprawl in its own paved-over way extended urban blight. Yet little appropriate national legislation existed. There was no Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Clean Water Act, or Endangered Species Act. Land, rivers, and people — whether in city or countryside — were all dumped on.

In 1969 that changed as two events grabbed the headlines: California’s pristine coast at Santa Barbara played host to a massive oil spill and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. US Senator Gaylord Nelson, known from previous public service as Wisconsin’s “Conservation Governor,” flew back from Santa Barbara with an idea and on 22 April 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated by 20 million Americans across the nation.

Earth Day quickly went global. By the 30th anniversary in 2000, people in 184 countries were holding Earth Day celebrations. That year the focus was clean energy. A decade later, the 40th anniversary saw attention shift to climate change. It also recalled Nelson’s address to a huge throng on the National Mall twenty years earlier: “I don’t want to have to come limping back here twenty years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day… and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn’t do your duty—that you didn’t become the conservation generation that we hoped for.”

The conservation generation hoped for? If the aim then was conservation, where is Earth Day now?

Earth Day 2013 marks a different age. The destabilization of climate change alongside the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity dramatizes an altered planet — so deeply altered that the “sweet spot” of sufficient planetary stability to host all the human civilizations ever known, the late Holocene, is exiting. Scientists have already given its successor a name: “the Anthropocene.” If the mark of the Holocene was relative climate stability conducive to life, then the tattoo of the Anthropocene is cumulative human activities powerful enough to alter Earth’s core surface processes: atmosphere, ocean, or land. While humanly-induced, these core changes even occur where humans have little or no presence—at the polar ice caps, in ocean depths, in upper regions of the atmosphere. Everything—air, water, soil—is sufficiently impacted so as to render Planet Home passing strange.

The consequence is a familiar geological age moving so far out of phase that the planet can no longer be counted on for steady seasons of seedtime and harvest; for glacial waters feeding great rivers; for sea levels trustworthy enough to permit the building of great cities; for sufficient time for flora and fauna to adjust to new insect predators and diseases, or drought and deluge; for governments capable of marshaling resources to handle disasters of greater number and intensity or to allay the conflicts that arise when desperate people are rendered helpless and homeless en masse; for rainfall and snowpack and enough resources to assure that future generations will survive and thrive on a diminished and destabilized planet; and for ocean biochemistry stable enough to maintain eons-old underwater rainforests. (We are losing ocean eco-systems faster than terrestrial ones.)

In a word, Earth Day 2013 finds the third rock from the sun undergoing a transformation inimical to the very civilization that creates that transformation. Nature’s economy is deeply at odds with the global human economy. The result is not, as in 1970, a conservation crisis that threatened the pleasures of a way of life firmly in place. The result is a civilizational crisis that begs for a different way of life. What was, on that first Earth Day, full-blown confidence that industrial-technological civilization and 3.7 billion people could right itself has in 2013 become a troubled doubt that global consumerism for the nearly doubled population—7 billion—can. For some, uncertainty that never occurred in 1970 now looms. Because “planetary health is primary, and human well-being is derivative” (Th. Berry), and because “the first law of economics is the preservation of Earth’s economy” (also Berry), it has yet to be proven that we are a viable species for the very age we helped give birth. What is the faith and manner of living that takes us where we must go, from fossil-fueled industrial civilization to ecological civilization? Earth Day then and Earth Day now are ages apart.

Larry Rasmussen is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key.

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Image Credit: View on Earth. Photo by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Austria. Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

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