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From Earth Day to Sustainability: On the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

Praise for Earth and concerns for the future echoed across America in 1970 as speaker after speaker celebrated the first Earth Day. After reviewing what had been said, Barry Commoner, in his now famous book, Closing Circle, concluded that Earth Day meant everything and thus nothing. “The confusion … was a sign that the situation was so complex and ambiguous that people could read into it whatever conclusion their own beliefs—about human nature, economics, and politics—suggested.”  Forty years later, we are still struggling with the meaning and purpose of Earth Day.  What environmental qualities should we protect?  What development path should we follow?  In which future do we want to live?

The challenges confronting us in 2010 are in every way more sobering than those of 1970: climate chaos, depleted fisheries, water shortages, soil salinization, crushing poverty, and soaring global material aspirations.  And worse, our political will and government capacity are shackled. Do not lament.  Sustainability provides purpose to Earth Day.  It brings people to the table.  Sane people want to live in a thriving and sustainable future.  Constructing such a future is clearly within our grasp.  We are the problem.  We are the solution.

In 1987 the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission set down the fundamental challenge and contradiction of our time.  “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Individuals, communities, nations, and Earthlings agree that we want to sustain, nurture, and cherish the traditions, ideals, places, people, and institutions that make us feel special and enhance our quality of life.  But we also agree that we must strive to improve current conditions, expand opportunities for others less fortunate, and advance human potential to realize new dreams.  The perceived contradiction between these two goals has stymied progress towards either.  To sustain something means keeping it safe from degradation and change.  To develop something means to change it.  Sustainable development efforts produce negotiation train wrecks when we can’t agree on what to keep and what to change.  Unfortunately, rather than engage in the difficult task of negotiating development pathways to desirable futures, we have instead distracted ourselves by gambling.

“We are the problem. We are the solution.”

Our primary strategy to achieve sustainable development has been to invest most of our money, time and talent in natural sciences and engineering technologies to solve problems of supply.  We are betting that innovations by creative individuals motivated by market riches will increase supply of the things we want—energy, materials, water, shelter, convenience, entertainment—and reduce the supply of things we don’t want—pollutants and wastes.

Why do we place such a big, risky bet that human ingenuity is the ultimate resource?  Because it is easier to wish for luck than to face our addictions.  It allows us to put off hard choices.  It requires no sober introspections about our development path and priorities.  We aren’t forced to trade-off the things to save with the things to change.  Instead we wager that the invisible hand of Adam Smith will be able to bake us an every larger pie, so not only will our slices grow, but so will there be more to share with those currently less fortunate.  The bet is a risky one, however, and the reasoning flawed.

Human wants know no bounds.  Marketing strategies and social expectations successfully motivate us to want more, buy more, and be increasingly materialistic.  We eagerly oblige despite ancient wisdoms and modern scientific evidence that confirm we can’t buy happiness.  The burden of supporting many billion more meat rich, energy intensive, materialistic lifestyles is undeniably unsustainable.  Economic-growth-has-no-limits advocates none withstanding, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment sadly confirms that capitalism’s success in satisfying human needs and wants is already taking its toll on our finite and fragile blue-green orb.

The path to sustainability, and the hope of Earth Day, is to manage both supply and demand.  Society must invest some of its bet in the humanities and social sciences.  We need stories that re-define the good life.  We need art that celebrates the sacrifice that parents make for their children and current generations make for the next.  We need status to be defined independently of possessions.  And perhaps most importantly, we need social programs, organizations, and policies that help us evaluate complex situations, set priorities, and make the conflict-ridden trade-offs required of sustainable development.

Reasons for hope abound.  They can be found in solutions emerging from the thousands upon thousands of community groups that Paul Hawken, in his best selling Blessed Unrest, reports have formed to take responsibility for local quality of life issues: in efforts by major universities to develop new graduate and undergraduate majors emphasizing integrative sustainability studies; in collaboration among ecologists and economists to identify and price water filtration, pollination, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services that we have thus far been wasting and exploiting because we haven’t had to pay for them; and in the rapidly expanding markets for local and sustainable food and forest products that allow people to vote with their pocketbooks for a thriving and sustainable future.

Earth Day reminds us we have one planet, one life support system, one parts department to resupply the engine of capitalism, and one home for our diverse cultures, religions, and political parties.  Sustainability provides reason to care about the Earth because by doing so we are caring for each other.  We already have the needed ethical principle of care embedded in most every world religion and culture.  Sustainability adds the needed temporal dimension:  Do to others as you would have them do to you and pass to the future what you are grateful was passed to you.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for GREENR.

Posted on: April 22, 2010, 9:34 am Category: Sustainability and Education Tagged with: , , , , ,

9 Responses

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  1. Jeff Morris said

    It can be difficult to be positive about the future of humanity’s place on Earth when confronted with the challenges that Professor Hull and others have mentioned. Yet the very fact that we have introduced reflexivity into our discourse on human activity and the environment is for me cause for optimism. A century ago there was little such questioning (although there was some) of humanity’s relation with nature. It is difficult to see change when one’s in the middle of it, yet to me it feels like we are at the beginning of new thinking and speaking that questions some fundamental Enlightenment premises. Perhaps humanity is moving beyond the painful stages of mid-adolescence toward young adulthood. Let’s hope so.

  2. Kathy said

    Earth Day is a great opportunity to grab people’s attention and direct it towards global environmental issues. The focus of Earth Day should be to educate the public and let people know what they can do on an individual basis to help humanity be kinder to our planet. It is important to emphasize that something can be done about the situation that our resource-exploiting materialism has gotten us into. It seems that doom and gloom stories on the national news only report on how awful it is that there is a huge oil spill off the coast or that a part of an ice cap the size of a small state broke off in Antarctica. Earth Day should be all about raising awareness of these incidents and then saying, here’s what YOU can do about it! Although I agree that people should be sustainable every day of the year, I think it is important to have one day when environmental issues are guaranteed to make headlines and environmental activism groups are sure to get some public attention.

  3. Catherine said

    I agree that earth day helps show people why taking care of the earth is important and worthwhile. But this needs to be seen every other day of the year, the earth will not improve at all with one educational day about it. And I agree that sustainability is something we need to move towards, but we are finding it hard to make the transition. Most people today are not willing to give up the luxuries that they currently enjoy to “save the earth”.

  4. Jamee said

    I agree that it is just easier to place faith on the human ingenuity than to face what might happen if human ingenuity fails. I know that I have until realizing that we can’t just have faith. Supply and demand is a good way to bring about change. I like the idea that we need to change the fact that status is defined by our possessions. Its not until I am made aware of the impacts that I’m make, in classes like Nature and American Values and Resource Geology, that I realize that I should change my life style. I watched the video “The Story of Stuff” today, which brings up similar points. Where I don’t agree with everything in the video I think that it does a good job getting you think about how the stuff we buy affects the earth. With education I believe that changes can be made towards a sustainable future.

  5. Chad Stachowiak said

    I agree with the comment by previous posters. It is true that change in our society towards a more sustainable future must begin with being concerned with the environment for more than just one day out of the year; it must be a continuous concern. It is also true that education will be the vehicle to spread benefits and necessity of sustainable living. Although I agree with these to concepts, it does not mean I do not find them naïve. There is no incentive for society to listen to what they are taught or to show any concern for the environment every day. Society has air to breathe, water to drink, and resources to consume, why should there be reason for concern? The problem lies in the way society operates. Currently, the costs of society’s exploitation of the environment are externalized. That is, those causing the problems and the waste (like those throwing away the plastic wrapping) are not directly responsible for the environmental impact of such practices. The costs are passed on to society as a whole whether it is through decreased water quality, increased trash in landfills, or habitat destruction. If society is geared to operate in such a manner, than why can the machinery of society not be utilized to effect change? One possible way is to use capitalism instead of allowing it to run rampant towards negative environmental impact. Taxes and commodity markets can be emplaced to internalize the environmental cost that society’s consumerism causes. The effectiveness of such a system can be seen in the controls for limiting sulfur oxide emissions during the early 1990’s. Similar systems are on the drawing board for controlling carbon emissions and there is reason why. A market control does not require the cost that regulation carries with it. A market control can be put emplace and the cheapest method will prevail over time. By carefully establishing the desired commodity market or structuring the tax in the right way, sustainability can be practiced because it is the “right” thing to do and the most economically sensible thing to do.

    By no means do I have a large background in economics, but from an introduction to macroeconomics and research into reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) I became knowledgeable about the effectiveness of market controls to implement policy. If it can be shown, I am willing to concede that my remarks are just as naïve as those that I labeled previously.

  6. Cutter Sydnor said

    I agree with most of what Dr. Hull says here; I strongly believe that unless we personally and individually change our actions and lives (our “demand”) that we have no chance of solving any problems. We cannot create more and more ad nauseum, for we will eventually dig ourselves a hole deep and inescapable. However, I am not convinced that universities, ecologists, or organic food can bring about the change in our society that it so desperately needs. While these are all great things, I have a hard time seeing progress until each citizen of the developed world can exercise restraint and separate wants from needs. I certainly am not completely hopeless like Whitney, but I will have my doubts until people realize that giving a little up is necessary for human society to continue to thrive in any form similar to today’s.

  7. Tom Gavin said

    If we have to make a change as a society as towards a more sustainable future, why should an emphasis be put on taking care of our environment one day a year. To improve the quality of our environment and lessen our impact, the values of Earth Day need to become a part of everyday life through education and media. The problem of Earth Day is very similar to Valentine’s Day: if you love someone, why should you have to show it on a specific day every year. If we want to continue our development as well as save our environment, people need to make environment-friendly decisions consistently.

  8. Whitney Sheppard said

    In the early 1900’s no one had ever heard of global warming or thought about how their actions affected the Earth. Today you would be hard pressed to find someone who had never heard of global warming. If not widely accepted it is still widely known. The present population is aware of their affect on the environment but continue with their harmful practices. Until conditions become detrimental to the human population, I do not foresee any significant changes. By then, it will be too late. I believe your suggestions on managing supply and demand could work. However I don’t believe they are possible in today’s society and culture. We have grown accustomed to comfort and leisure. We do not associate these things with the processes and resources used to provide them. Humans may know that what they do is harmful but few have a true “understanding” of their actions and consequences. Overall, I have no hope for the human race.

  9. The driving problem with the world is the society people have created. We have distanced ourselves from the world devoid of civilization and have replaced it with an increasing demand for material goods. When we look at the plastic wrapping we throw away we do not see the precious energy and resources it took to create it. Since this connection has been lost it has become easier for people to continually keep consuming more and more. Most people don’t connect that buying disposable paper plates means cutting down a tree to be thrown away. The best way to get the population to understand the consequences of their purchases is to educate them and the best day to gain attention for environmental causes is Earth Day. That is why it is unfortunate that public participation has decreased on this day and many people view it as a day to plant a tree. It is not only a day to give back to the Earth and try to repair some of the damages that civilization creates but also a day to raise awareness about the world’s unsustainable practices. Mostly it should be a day for individuals to reflect on their own actions and their impacts and try to reconnect with the world we have grown so apart from. As individuals and a civilization we need to face the hard questions. We have created these problems and we need to become the solution through awareness and implementing more sustainable practices. Waiting for technology to save us will only drive us deeper and deeper into the hole we are digging for ourselves and before we know it it will be too late to turn back and save our civilization. It is humans who are dependent on the Earth, not the other way around, and so if we destroy the Earth we have then we are effectively destroying ourselves. We need to change our cultures and our lifestyles to be compatible with what the Earth can provide and we need to start today.

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