Getting real…about Earth Day

Today is Earth Day! Lots to think and talk about, but before we dive in, just out of curiosity…at what point today, and in what way, did you first consciously remember this? Was it some firsthand experience with nature…you were out of doors and conscious of the spring air (northern hemisphere) or an early bite of fall (southern hemisphere)? Or did you remember when you opened the newspaper (they’ve been covering the story for a couple of days)? Secondhand…and so 20th century! Or maybe it wasn’t until you lit up your computer or smartphone and saw Google’s home-page logo, with the clear water flowing, the penguins jumping in, the pandas, the butterflies, and more? Up-to-date, one way to remember, but basically third-hand.

Earth Day.

Easter. Mothers Day. Martin Luther King Day. Cinco de Mayo. Memorial Day. Labor Day. Your birthday. Your anniversary. And many more. In some countries, you’ll have as many as fifty national holidays.

A wonderful part of each year! Some of these dates are the same each time around, some move around a bit, others are peculiar to each of us. Wherever these dates fall for you, they provide a structure, an annual rhythm, that has become an important part of your life.

We need this framework. There’s something in our physical and psychological makeup that makes it difficult for us to keep more than a very small handful of ideas, or goals, or desires in the forefront of our thinking, every day, and at all times. So it’s nice to have a day where we remember everything our mothers have done for us in a special way…where we can reach out to Mom and thank her for those years of nurturing and support and caring, that supposedly dealt with those early, formative years of our lives, but in reality never have stopped. We need a day to be thankful for those men and women who gave their lives in combat, defending our country’s liberty, democracy, and other cultural values. Or a day to reflect on the contributions made by all those who’ve worked in factories, and on the farm, and in the offices, to keep our country going. Or the inspiration of great men and women, or the way our culture has been enriched by different ethnic groups. It helps to have a special day for each such idea and person or group. Or a day to worship.

But that’s not really the whole story is it? Something more has to happen. We perhaps see this with greatest clarity at the personal level. Think about that anniversary. First of all, very important to remember that day, rather than forget it! I recall a preacher once looking at the congregation and saying, “My wife was born on Christmas! I tried to marry her on Christmas Day, but her mother wouldn’t let me.”

But second, that anniversary – and all others – work best when they are not truly exceptional days, but when instead they build on meaningful experiences and sharing that have occurred throughout the year, on all or most of those other days. Take National Boss’ Day, celebrated on October 16 every year. After becoming a boss in the early 1970’s, I got very excited about this day, but have had a succession of employees over the years, with varying degrees of acerbity or creativity, remind me that with them around, “every day is boss’ day.” [you gotta wonder, who really thought this national day would fly?] So, come that wedding anniversary, I’d better have a bank account of goodwill stored up with my wife, hadn’t I? She’d better not have reason to ask, “where have you been the past 364 days?” The same for our mothers, for those veterans, for all the diverse groups that comprise America, and so on. The special day is cause for celebration if and only if we’ve been paying our dues all along. Otherwise, for that spouse or mother or veteran or union worker it can be the occasion for sadness.

This is no less true of Earth Day.

The Earth – the real world – could it speak (and it actually does have ways of communicating with us, through the resources it yields, the decay it shows, the violence it displays) might well ask all seven billion of us – where have you been the rest of this past year? My rainforests are disappearing, endangered species are going extinct. Groundwater is drawing down. The Asian brown cloud is continually present. Populations are going hungry, are being displaced by floods, wildfire, and drought. You all seem to be more preoccupied with the political faults you see in one another, more interested in maintaining your repressive regimes, in finding provocation for armed conflict, than you are in how things are going with the Earth that supports you.

Such accusations hurt us…because we know they’re true.

What to do?

Well, we can take our cue from what we do on those birthdays, those anniversaries, Mothers Day. We know that gift…the new dishwasher (especially the new dishwasher!), the flowers, the clothing, by itself, just doesn’t cut it. And it’s not the money, either. Jewelry doesn’t do the trick, those seductive ads notwithstanding.

No, what works is a new attitude. It starts with repentance for our past inattention, our negligence. [We’re not talking words of apology here, but rather a change of heart.] It then builds, through new sensitivity, awareness, understanding, empathy.

In the case of the real world, this means more observation. More analysis. Development of knowledge and understanding. How does the Earth-ocean-atmospheric system work? In what ways is it robust? At which locations, and times, and respects are it and its lifeforms fragile? It works through extreme events (think fits of rage)? How can we get better at seeing these coming?

Mostly by being more attentive. Investing in Earth observations. Modeling and forecasting. Gaining knowledge and understanding, and making this science available in services to the energy sector, agribusiness, public health, transportation, water resource managers, and others who can put it to effective use. And, as we’ve pointed out in recent posts, e.g., (what would puzzle…Olbers today?, America’s checkbook, and tornado outbreaks…), this needn’t break the bank. We’re spending something less than 0.1% of GDP on such activities today. We could easily double this, and then double it again over the next several years…and we’d likely find that we increased the world’s wealth, rather than subtracted from it.

Getting real, in this way? Just the kind of commitment and rededication Earth is looking for from us on this – Earth Day.

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