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EARTH DAY MUSING by Evan Lawrence

I was a junior in high school on the first Earth Day in 1971. It was a heady time in the environmental movement. People realized that the earth was in serious trouble, with badly polluted air, land, and water, and much needed to be done. People were encouraged to park their cars and walk or ride a bike, eschew excess packaging, buy goods made from recycled materials, reduce energy use by turning off lights and unused appliances, and contact elected officials in support of laws to protect wildlife and the environment. (I am sometimes peeved that 42 years later, we are still reminding each other to do all these simple things.)

Tremendous progress has been made since those days: the formation of federal and state environmental protection agencies and departments, the federal Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, similar legislation at the state and local level, and wonderful technical advances that have made cleaner air, land, and water possible. Eagles, wolves, and other animals and birds are back from the brink of extinction.

Much remains to be done. Far too many people are still hopping into a car to run errands that could be done on foot or on a bike, floating trash is clogging the ocean, only a small fraction of recyclables are actually recycled, and lights that are never turned off have proliferated to the point that I’m convinced our society has a terror of the dark. The bald eagle and wolf may be off the endangered species list, but other animals are headed there, including polar bears and several once-common bat species.

Two issues that were barely mentioned in 1971 have become critical, and they are inextricably linked: population growth and the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is a key factor in climate change. In 1971, global population was under 4 billion. Estimates are that we reached 7 billion, a doubling of the earth’s population, last October. In 1971, the combined human population put less than 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This year we’ll give off about 9 billion, more than double the 1971 load. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air you’re breathing right now is about 390 parts per million, the highest it’s been in 600,000 years, longer than we’ve been around as a modern species. Predictions are that it will continue to rise, with devastating results for climate change and the health of the oceans. Our demands for fresh water, food, and non-renewable resources such as petroleum are killing uncountable plants, insects, birds, fish, and animals outright and making vast tracts of land and ocean uninhabitable for the survivors.

By any rational assessment, 7 billion people are way, way more than the earth can support in any comfort. Even if we had the resources and technology to feed, shelter, and educate everyone adequately and provide them with decent jobs—and we don’t—we lack the social, political, and economic systems to ensure that all would receive their fair share. If we as a species don’t come up with some way of stabilizing population growth and reducing our numbers, all the Priuses and LEDs in the world won’t make a bit of difference. We’re done for. Mother Nature will whack down our numbers in the way she always does when a species outstrips the ability of its environment to support it. Not only will it be very ugly, but we’ll take a lot of other species—are already taking them-- with us on our way down.

What can we do? Every one of us 7 billion contributes to the problem. The good news is that since we all contribute, every one of us has the power to do something.

The first choice we can make is to limit the number of offspring we produce—none, one, or two, no more. Tell your family and friends about your decision. Encourage them to do the same. (Grandparents, this includes you.) If you feel pressured to have more children, say you’re focusing on quality, not quantity. Support safe, humane, and effective family planning at home and abroad. Nearly one of three pregnancies in this county is unplanned, and millions of people worldwide lack access to any artificial birth control.

The second vital choice is to educate yourself about how carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases affect climate, and how your daily activities increase that load. Make time in your life to consider how you can help the earth stay livable, and take action. Look not only for small, easy changes, such as recycling cans and bottles instead of discarding them, but also for the big, lifestyle choices: living near your work, buying a existing modest house in town instead of building a big new one on open land in the country, committing to a fuel-efficient car or public transportation or even taking one family car off the road, vacationing close to home or choosing environmentally-friendly destinations.

Some issues we can’t do much about as individuals. Whereas the manufacture of one plastic bag, for example, puts a few grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, one Space Shuttle launch releases many tons. Private citizens don’t have much say over the U.S. space program. We can, however, come together in organizations that influence public policy and private initiatives. From national environmental organizations that work on national and international issues to local planning boards and neighborhood associations, we can have some say in our future.

Here are some quotes that keep me hopeful.

“Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that matters.”                                         --Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”

“What you do may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”                                         --Mohandas K. Gandhi

“Great social movements are made of individual actions. Together, we can shake the world.”             --One of Gandhi’s descendants speaking at a peace rally I attended in the early 1980s. I have long since forgotten his name, but not his words.

Thanks to the Sierra Club for many of the numbers I cite in this article.