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50 years later, Earth Day’s unsolved problem: How to build a more sustainable world

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/21/2020 Sarah Kaplan
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Hundreds of people listen to speakers after cleaning up New York's Union Square on April 22, 1970 — the first Earth Day. © AP Hundreds of people listen to speakers after cleaning up New York's Union Square on April 22, 1970 — the first Earth Day.

Fifty years ago, flames sprang from the oil-slicked surface of a Cleveland river. Smog choked Los Angeles. Pesticides silenced millions of insects and birds. Oil gushed from a busted well off California, swamping anything that lived in the ocean.

Then, on April 22, 1970, 10 percent of America took to the streets for the first Earth Day. It was an unprecedented demonstration on behalf of nature, a declaration that people could not thrive unless the planet did, too. “Things as we know them are falling apart,” one of the movement’s young organizers, Denis Hayes, told a crowd in Washington. “A whole society is realizing it must drastically change course.”

Government responded in stunningly short order. The Environmental Protection Agency was created, a suite of powerful laws were enacted to protect the air, water and endangered species. The release of toxic substances was controlled.

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But half a century later, one of the problems that motivated the early Earth Day activists remains unsolved, said Hayes, now 75. We haven’t quit the fossil fuels scientists say are warming the atmosphere and harming the Earth. Humans use more resources than the planet produces. Society has not changed course.

In this moment of overlapping crises, activists say it’s all the more important to make good on the promises of 50 years ago. To avoid a future as painful as the present, people must learn to live more sustainably — respectful of the living things whose fates are linked to ours, aware that the laws of nature apply to us as well, experts say.

In other words, we have to become better Earthlings. 

Denis Hayes holding a sign posing for the camera: Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes in Palo Alto, Calif., on April 21, 1990. © Paul Sakuma/AP Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes in Palo Alto, Calif., on April 21, 1990.

Step one is to understand how Earth works, said paleontologist Scott Wing, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Twice a week during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Wing drives an eerily empty stretch of road to the Smithsonian’s research facility on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. There he tends ginkgo trees for an experiment on ancient climate. The trees are immersed in the atmosphere of 50 million years ago, when greenhouse gas concentrations exploded and the world got hotter, faster than any other moment in geologic history — except this one.

By re-creating this ancient cataclysm, Wing is revealing the forces that still govern life on Earth. Adding carbon to the atmosphere traps heat. The ocean turns acidic, sea levels rise, species die, migrate and evolve. Positive feedback loops, such as the melting of permafrost, can turn what once seemed a slow-moving process into one that worsens exponentially. And even change that happens quickly is slow to reverse; it took more than 150,000 years for the world to recover from the warm period Wing is studying with his ginkgo trees.

“The idea that all things are connected to each other — it’s not just a metaphor,” Wing said.

Humans’ capacity to control the environment — to domesticate animals, turn forests into farmland, dam rivers, build cities, create light and clothes and rocket fuel from the carbon remnants of a long-gone world — has “deluded” us into thinking we stand alone, Wing said.

But human health depends on the activity of millions of bacteria that dwell in our bodies and on our skin. Our stomachs would be empty without the winged creatures that pollinate the crops we grow for food. Microscopic organisms floating in the ocean produce more than half the oxygen we need to breathe. Forests filter the falling rain, cleaning water before it flows into lakes and streams.

Even a tiny packet of genetic material wrapped in a protein shell can bring human society to its knees.

“We’re now co-creating a planetary environment with the ancient forces that have always worked on it and modified it,” Wing said.

And most sustainability scientists say we’re not doing a very good job.

“Society has organized itself … as a pyramid, or hierarchy,” said Beth Sawin, a biologist and complex-systems scientist who co-founded the think tank Climate Interactive. “All the way at the bottom is the Earth to be dominated.”

Climate change has exposed the flaws in that system, she said. So, too, has the coronavirus outbreak. Sawin points to farmers who had to destroy crops because of supply-chain problems, even as food banks are overwhelmed by millions of people who have suddenly lost their jobs.

“We have to start to realize the way we’ve been living is just habit in many ways,” Sawin said, “and many things that seem like they could never change are shakier than you think."

In the late 1990s, Sawin helped establish a cooperative community in rural Vermont. On 270 acres shared by residents, they harvest vegetables and boil down maple syrup, eat meals in a communal dining hall and help raise one another’s children. Their houses are carbon-neutral and environmental protections are written into the bylaws. All decisions are made by consensus, and when there is disagreement, the cooperative has four pages of guidelines for conflict resolution.

The community is imperfect, Sawin said, especially because it’s embedded in an imperfect global system. But it has showed her what’s to be gained by living differently: the sweetness of strawberries you grow yourself, the comfort of knowing you are not on your own.

The coronavirus has done something similar, she said. It has prompted individuals to stay home for the good of the many and communities to come together to protect the vulnerable. It has opened our eyes to our interconnectedness — how easily a sickness in a single city can become a pandemic that threatens the world.

This Earth Day was supposed to be a display of global solidarity. Protests were planned in more than 180 countries. Hayes was dreaming of the anniversary as a “climate inflection point,” when more than a billion people marching would finally force the world to change.

But social distancing measures have pushed the event online, where Hayes fears it will reach fewer people. “It’s a huge lost opportunity,” he said.

Yet the 1970s hold another lesson for today, Hayes said. After the initial Earth Day, organizers launched a campaign to unseat members of Congress who opposed environmental legislation. Seven of the 12 incumbents were defeated that November, and the Clean Air Act was passed one month later.

Richard Nixon, William Ruckelshaus are posing for a picture: President Richard Nixon observes as William D. Ruckelshaus is sworn in as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970. © Charles Tasnadi/AP President Richard Nixon observes as William D. Ruckelshaus is sworn in as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970.

In an editorial for his hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, Hayes called on Americans to treat Election Day as this year’s Earth Day, and vote for politicians who favor climate action.

“With covid-19, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Hayes said. “There’s going to be a vaccine.”

Climate activists also need something to look toward, he added: A plan to rebuild society in a more sustainable way, to finally change course and create the world envisioned on the original Earth Day.

“That,” Hayes said, “is the climate vaccine.”

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