James Hansen, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University
I admit it; I am not a big fan of Earth Day. This aversion could stem from what happened to me on one of the first Earth Day celebrations in NYC in Central Park, when a large dog mistook my back as a tree stump and I was urinated upon; but, it doesn’t. My objection to Earth Day is more fundamental. Why must we set aside a day (or a week) to be “Earth conscious?” We should be cognizant of the planet and our effects on the planet every day – not once a year. For those of us who are trained ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, climatologists, and other environmental scientists; and for those that are passionate, active, and concerned citizens (AKA environmentalists), we don’t need an “earth” day. The people of the earth don’t need an Earth Day. Or do we?
With 7 billion people on this planet, increasing at 1% per year, perhaps we need to be reminded about finite resources, and unsustainable population growth and consumption. With agro-ecosystems providing the equivalent of more than 2700 Kcal per person, and with nearly 1 billion people undernourished, while obesity becomes epidemic elsewhere, perhaps we need a wake-up call. With unprecedented levels of factory farming and feedlots across the globe, loss of soil fertility and top soil, increased levels of pesticides and pharmaceuticals in groundwater, and 70% of the world’s freshwater being used by agribusiness – perhaps we need new priorities and new educational outreach.
With our climate system permanently altered by greenhouse gas emissions, with sea ice and land ice melting at unparalleled rates, with sea level rising, with increased frequency and severity of storms, with changes in the thermohaline conveyor system slowing the Gulf Stream and consequently allowing water levels to rise on the Mid-Atlantic coast of North America, and all the while, global carbon emissions still rise, perhaps we need a regular reminder that change is necessary.
While rivers cease to reach the oceans, and while ocean systems are over-harvested and polluted, we need to act now. We need to act. The dominant social and economic paradigms of consumerism and consumption as a measure of self-worth have to change. I tell my students that “business as usual” is no longer acceptable, that the dominant paradigms are outdated and self-destructive; that it’s up to all of us to work to protect the planet for the future.
My utopian world is one in which Earth Day is not necessary – until then I’ll continue to work to bring about change and hope that at some point we won’t need Earth Day any longer.
Arthur H. Kopelman, Ph.D.
SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Science at FIT