Earth Day is 46 years old today; it has reached middle age and thus it is a perfect time to reflect on both its past and its future.
On the first Earth Day in 1970, people were inspired and motivated to take action to reduce pollution and protect the planet. That passion for environmental protection is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network, and celebrated in more than 193 countries each year on April 22.
In response to the 20 million who participated in the first Earth Day, governments created departments of the environment and established regulations on how we all should treat our air, water and land.
Unscrupulous individuals and companies, however, often moved their polluting operations to jurisdictions like developing countries with laxer or no environmental regulations.
Municipal landfills, incinerators, refineries, and toxic waste dumps were often located near low-income communities or minority ethnic groups, even in North America where in some communities pollution equality is still worse than income equality.
All the while humanity’s numbers kept increasing and those who were wealthy enough kept consuming. The results are reflected in some sobering numbers.
In my lifetime the number of people on the planet has tripled. World population in 1946, the year I was born, was approximately 2.4 billion. By 1970, the world population reached 3.7 billion and in 2015 it had increased to 7.35 billion.
In 1970 the gross world product was $18.3 trillion; by 2015 it more than quadrupled, topping $78 trillion.
All that economic growth took a toll on the planet’s ability to provide us with renewable resources.
The ecological footprint is a measure of the total demands placed on nature by humans, where a value of 1.00 means that the world economy used the equivalent of what the Earth can sustainably provide in a year.
In 1970, humanity’s ecological footprint was 0.88; by 2015 it reached 1.6 — in other words, exceeding what nature can provide by slightly more than half.
Our industrial economy based on hydrocarbon fuels is accelerating climate change; threatening our drinking water; contributing to polar ice cap melt and thereby changing the Earth’s axis; putting our investments at carbon risk; and imperiling our health.
The latest scientific research tells us that our fossil fuel use will have to fall twice as fast as predicted if global warming is to be kept within the two degree Celsius limit agreed internationally as being the point of no return.
Other research informs us that we may have underestimated the impacts of rising temperatures on the viability of our food supply. Humans benefited from the gifts provided by our use of carbon based fuels and now we are experiencing the penalties.
Coupled with the fact that just 62 individuals now have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people — half of humanity — clearly the status quo spells trouble.
The agreement reached by 195 countries in Paris at the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change will be signed at the United Nations in New York today. But the accord is dependent on voluntary actions at a time when humanity desperately needs legislated targets and goals with the backup resources and plans to meet them.
On Feb. 29 about 50 Nelson students staged a 24-hour sit-in at L.V. Rogers Secondary School in support of climate action and the LEAP Manifesto, a national declaration that lays out a vision for transforming away from fossil fuels.
In a new reality where the old rules no longer apply, the LEAP Manifesto calls on Canadians to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, create innovative ownership structures, build energy efficient homes and retrofit existing housing, construct affordable public transit, establish a national childcare program, and introduce a universal basic annual income.
These initiatives would be paid for by ending fossil fuel subsidies, financial transaction taxes, increased resource royalties, higher income taxes on corporations and the wealthy, a continually rising carbon fee and dividend, and cuts to military spending.
Earth Day at 46 years of age is about so much more than just the environment. It is now about elevating human well-being as our main goal and assuring our economic structure fits with what ecosystems can provide.
We need to displace our mental models of progress and rewrite our behavioural scripts to embrace the physical rules of our planet. We must and can make this leap now.
Our survival depends on seeing the Earth — and the day we celebrate it — anew.
Longbeach resident Michael Jessen is a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a lifelong advocate for the environment and social justice.