Earth Day: Rethinking our approach to the earth
The Jakarta Post, 23 April 2003 – HEADLINE NEWS
by Yanuar Nugroho,
Founded in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a former United States senator from Wisconsin, Earth Day has grown into a global event. This year, April 22 marks the 33rd celebration of Earth Day, a day when people around the world hold events to honor our planet and to remind everyone about the importance of our ecosystem.
In 1970, 20 million Americans demonstrated in streets, parks and auditoriums for a healthier, cleaner environment. The response was a relative improvement to environmental awareness and some initial action to deal with the most obvious insults to the Earth — the Clean Air, Water and Superfund Acts were passed by Congress, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created.
The question now is, what is different today in comparison with the last 33 years, and how do we account for the differences?
The smoke may be gone, but invisible gases are causing the earth-threatening crises of global warming and acid rain from increased production of fossil fuels. Today, 78 million barrels of oil are extracted per day — in 1970, we drew “only” 46 million barrels of oil per day.
Natural gas production has tripled over the past 30 years, from 34 trillion to 95 trillion cubic feet per year. We mined 2.2 billion metric tons of natural gas in 1970; this year, we will mine about 4 billion metric tons.
Donella Meadows wrote in 2000 that the production of natural gas creates massive pollution, since it is extracted (and spilled), shipped (and spilled), refined (generating toxins) and burned to produce numerous pollutants, including carbon dioxide, which traps outgoing energy and heats up the atmosphere.
Despite brave promises, the carbon emissions we produce have increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.5 million metric tons this year. Since the first Earth Day, the global vehicle population has swelled from 246 million to 730 million, and air traffic has increased by a factor of six.
The rate at which we harvest trees to make paper has doubled in the last 30 or so years to 200 million metric tons per year.
In the same period, we have reaped 2.25 times as much wheat, 2.5 times as much corn, 2.2 times as much rice, almost twice as much sugar and almost four times as much soybeans from our soil as we did 30 or so years ago, with the help of man-made chemicals.
We catch almost twice as much fish, and now they are harder and harder to find. Even if we do catch some fish, we are told not to eat them because of their high levels of toxins such as mercury. Some of these chemicals may be radically disrupting the reproductive systems of fish, birds and, of course, ourselves.
The irony is that the underlying cause of all environmental impacts, that is, the rapid growth of the human population, continues unchecked.
In 1970, the global human population numbered 3.8 billion and increased at the rate of 2 people per second.
Today, we have reached the unsustainable level of 5.9 billion, and are blithely adding to this at a rate of 3 people per second.
Biologists and environmentalists have estimated that the earth can only sustain a population of under 2 billion.
What do these statistics imply?
Clearly, this means that we cannot continue to pollute our finite world and to destroy other species and their habitats; that we are just one link in a complex system of living things; and that we are dependent on our environment for our survival.
For most people, especially those who are increasing their personal wealth by exploiting our finite resources for an extremely short-term gain, this might come as a rude awakening.
It is because the recognition that “growth” cannot continue and that serious limits must be placed upon human activity, is a paradigm shift many refuse to accept.
We have among us the proponents of such growth. But the growth is always, if not mostly, measured in the abstract terms of socio-economic construct — like profit accumulation, return on investment, etc. — and not in environmental terms.
Since 1970, average human life expectancy has risen from 58 years to 66 years. Gross world product has more than doubled, from US$16 trillion to $39 trillion (Wayne Ellwood, 2001). Recycling has increased, but so has trash generation.
Thirty years ago, there weren’t any cell phones or video players, the Internet or dotcoms. Then again, nor was anyone infected with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, nor did we have to worry about genetically-modified food and the third-world debt, which was one-eighth of what it is now.
And how is such “progress” paid for?
The earth’s species are vanishing at a rate it hasn’t seen in 65 million years. Forty percent of agricultural soil has been degraded, half of our forests have disappeared and half of our wetlands have been filled or drained.
Sadly, despite Earth Day, these trends are accelerating. What can we do? Saying “NO” to polluting projects, products and technologies is a far better solution than trying to “clean up” expensive and life-endangering messes after they have been created. We must focus on prevention, not treatment.
Surely this idea upsets both the polluting industries and the regulatory systems they have learned to manipulate or buy off.
The public’s universal reluctance to change has allowed powerful corporate interests to be quite successful in creating an anti-environmental mood all over the world.
Individuals must take an active role in responding to these situations — in their neighborhoods, in their communities and in their nations. They will have to inform themselves and then come together and commit to protecting and preserving the planet.
One of the most important points is controlling and monitoring business malpractice, which often sacrifices the environment merely for profit, or “growth accumulation”. This is the most significant environmental challenge of our time.
If we are successful, the next stage in the earth’s environmental history can provide a safe and healthy environment for our children and grandchildren — a sustainable society that truly embraces the environmental ethic.
If we fail, however, it is us who will be held accountable as “the thieves of the future” — by our own grandchildren.
The writer is the Director of The Business Watch Indonesia, a lecturer at Sahid University in Surakarta, and a researcher at Uni-Sosial Demokrat, Jakarta.