Earth Day, 2010

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

Earth Day, 2010 has come and gone, and with it, the sense of planet-saving urgency that surrounds it. We smugly look backwards at the improvements we’ve made in the forty years since we first marked this day in 1970 and pat ourselves on the back. The air we breathe is cleaner, as is the water we drink, and the gaping Antarctic hole in the ozone is gradually repairing itself. We carry our groceries in canvas bags, wear clothing made from natural fibers, and keep our thermostats turned down to 68°, or even lower. We’ve protected huge swathes of wilderness, and brought species back from the brink of extinction. Apparently, we’ve made significant progress.

But, for all that we celebrate our planet in song and dance, we’re clearly doing something very wrong. In the past several weeks, 29 miners in West Virginia were killed in a mining explosion, 11 oil rig workers are missing and presumed dead after their platform exploded and sank, European airways were closed to traffic as an Icelandic volcano spewed tons of fine ash into the atmosphere, a Chinese coal tanker seriously damaged the Great Barrier Reef, and earthquakes in Tibet and Indonesia have buried thousands under rubble and mud. Within the past several months, we have witnessed earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, mine collapses in China, floods in New England and across Europe, and blizzards in much of the U.S. So much damage—even without adding climate change, melting glaciers and rising sea levels to the mix.

True, not all of these catastrophes are manmade, or not entirely . Mother Earth appears to be taking her children to task, with adverse economic and human costs to us. It may seem radical to imbue the notion of cause and effect to a planet. Still, there can be no question that, while these disasters may be random, this planet is not a static piece of cosmic rock; rather, it is a constantly evolving, hugely complex organism with so many moving parts that we will never fully understand it. As much as we can, we try to insure ourselves against cataclysmic events, but, as is becoming ever more evident, when Mother wants us to listen, she has ways of making herself heard.

And that brings me to the uncomfortable truth that all the choices we make in how we live our lives impact this earth we inhabit. We have moved from a symbiotic, harmonious relationship with the earth, to a parasitic, discordant one in order to constantly improve our standards of living. But humans cannot be typical parasites; if we successfully deplete our host, we annihilate ourselves. And, as is increasingly apparent, in this case, our host has powerful responses to prevent its own destruction.

It seems clear to me that the symbiotic balance between earth and humans needs to be reestablished if we are to survive. We need to think locally and sustainably, never taking from earth what cannot be easily replaced; we must recognize that our greatest natural resource is ourselves. Unfortunately, far from cherishing this abundant resource, we appear to hold lives different from our own rather cheaply. Thus we pay little heed to the coal miners or oil rig workers, who volunteer for these dangerous occupations in exchange for healthy paychecks. After all, we assume they understood the risks, and we require the coal and oil they excavate to power our lives. And earthquakes, which cause the greatest damage in impoverished places, where building methods are cheap and substandard, mostly effect people who lead lives far removed from our own comfortable existences. We may mouth meaningless platitudes, and maybe even make a small charitable donation—but only if it’s tax-deductible. Until disaster strikes in our own backyard, our attention span regarding the human costs of disaster remains alarmingly short.

So it comes as no surprise that the news media has flooded us with coverage of the closure of air traffic in Europe. Europeans flying hither and yon are clearly much closer socioeconomically to us than either coal miners or earthquake victims. We relate far better to the dilemma of being stranded, of not being able to travel from Point A to Point B, than we can to becoming homeless due to a natural disaster, or even worse, to dying as a result of one. That our own lives could possibly be inconvenienced due to a volcano erupting thousands of miles away seems absurd to us, yet much of Europe’s air travel was brought to a standstill by that very occurrence.

The more I read, the more I watch, the more I am convinced that this planet, which we’re fond of thinking of as ours to do with as we please, has very effective methods of keeping us in check. We have become negligent tenants of our planet, and we need to heed the warnings, because the earth is going nowhere; it is our habitat that is in peril. In that respect, the name “Earth Day” may not be entirely appropriate—perhaps we should more accurately rename it “Humanity Survival Day”.