Skip to content

Earth Day: some reflections

Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Launched in the USA in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, it follows the proposal the previous year of a day to celebrate the Earth and the concept of peace, to be held of March 21. So, in 1970, there were actually two Earth Days. The US one went international in 1990 and is now marked in virtually every country of the world (although it is unlikely to be at the top of many people’s minds, particularly in less developed countries).

It is now coordinated by the Earth Day Network, and this year focusses on trees. But, more than that, it is the day when over 150 countries, including the USA and China, are due to sign the climate change agreement that emerged from last December’s Paris summit. This is all highly symbolic, although it may be some time yet before enough countries ratify the final climate protection treaty. In the US, this is presently in the hands of President Obama, a strong supporter, but this support could be withdrawn by a future leader. In contrast, the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified because of overwhelming opposition in the Senate. China, of course, doesn’t have to rely on such democratic niceties, so would be free to ratify and would have little reason not to since the treaty places very few burdens on it.

So, Earth Day has become a big event in the environmentalist calendar. The 1990 event, effectively the launch in its current form, raised the profile of environmental issues and was one of the foundation stones of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and led to the Kyoto Protocol and the formation of the IPCC.

A quarter of a century after the end of World War II, the early ‘70s should have been a time of optimism as previously wrecked economies continued on their path of rapid rebuilding and growth. But they were overshadowed by the realities of the Cold War and, increasingly, by the pessimism of the modern green movement.

It was assumed that population would continue on its then path of growth at 2% or more each year, and the existential worries at the time can be seen from a selection of quotes from the 1970 Earth Day (courtesy of Reason magazine, via Wikipedia):

"It is already too late to avoid mass starvation."(Denis Hayes, main organiser of the event)

 "Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct." (Senator Nelson)

"... by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions.... By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine."(Prof Peter Gunter of North Texas State University)

"The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age."(Keith Watt, ecologist).

Of course, it would be wrong to mock these predictions because they were so far off target, because most predictions are. While we tend to think in straight lines, change occurs discontinuously. We now know that annual population growth, at just over 1%, is less than half of what it was at its peak in the 1960s and it is clear that fertility rates drop as societies become increasingly prosperous and women are better educated. We also know that we have not lost the majority of animal species, although to be fair the actual situation is far from clear (see Global extinction rates: why do estimates vary so widely? for a good summary of the situation).

Most importantly there has been a 180° paradigm shift on climate, with the received wisdom now that warming is the danger, rather than the rapid onset of an Ice Age predicted by Keith Watt. But, while there are some salutary lessons to be learned from looking at the perceived threats less than 50 years ago, human nature doesn’t change. People continue to make projections on the basis of current trends.

To quote from the current Earth Day Foundation website “This Earth Day and beyond, let’s make big stuff happen. Let’s plant 7.8 billion trees for the Earth. Let’s divest from fossil fuels and make cities 100% renewable. Let’s take the momentum from the Paris Climate Summit and build on it.”

The focus is very firmly on climate change as an issue, with the same blend of idealism and activism that was apparent in 1970, albeit with a changed target. The problem – global warming – and the cause – greenhouse gas emissions - have been identified and now the imperative is to do something, without questioning whether the actions will be effective.

Take, for example, the report that Norway sovereign wealth fund divests from 52 coal firms, following the trend set by the Anglican Church, among others. Coal is a dirty fuel in the true sense of the world, and its extraction is difficult and dangerous. But disinvestment will make not a scrap of difference to its use when China, India and other major economies will rely on it for decades to come. Economics and innovation will signal the effective end of coal, not the ethical investment movement.

Earth Day and similar movements have had a much broader influence than simply on energy. In the EU, the adoption of the Precautionary Principle as a way of dealing with environmental issues has led to an anti-science attitude that has effectively blocked the introduction of GM crops, threatens the future of synthetic biology and is unnecessarily removing effective pesticides from the farmers’ toolbox. The present situation is likely to stifle innovation and hinder the hoped-for move towards a bio-economy.

This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore Earth Day. Anything that can channel idealism and enthusiasm for a cause in this was deserves our attention. We should certainly use it to question our assumptions about the ‘right’ way to do things. But we allow idealism to set the policy agenda at our peril.