Thursday, April 5, 2012

Earth Day, Then and Now

Remember 1970?  The price of gas for regular was 36 cents a gallon.  That spring also marked the first celebration of Earth Day, organized partly as a response to an oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast the previous winter.  With April 22 approaching, I thought it would be informative to learn how the planet has fared in the intervening decades.

In 1970, the population of the world was 3.7 billion.  Today, in the space of forty-two years, it has almost doubled to over 7 billion.  In the two minutes it takes to read this article, another 300 people will have been added to the total.
Animals haven’t done so well.  The London Zoological Society reports that almost a third of the world’s species have gone extinct in recent years.  Researchers tracking 4000 species from 1970 to 2005 found that 25% of the land animals disappeared in that interval, 25% of the marine organisms, and 29% of those adapted to fresh water.  Goodbye Golden Toad.  Farewell Eastern Cougar. 

Compared to 1970, New England is two degrees warmer than it used to be.  According to the USDA’s temperature guides, winter lows are typically four degrees higher than they were back in the year the Beatles broke up.  That might not sound so dire to Yankee farmers, but if you’re a polar bear, global warming is a bummer. The arctic ice cap, roughly the size of the continently United States, has annually been losing the equivalent of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined since the late 1970’s. 

Since 1970, the Amazon rainforest has lost 745,289 square kilometers of tree cover, an area larger than the state of Texas (with most of that land clear cut to graze cattle).  In the same span, glaciers in the Andes have shed about 20% of their volume (devastating not only for the environment but for the people who depend on the annual runoff for drinking and irrigation).
Meanwhile, the average size of a new home constructed in the United States has jumped to 2900 square feet, compared to just 1400 square feet back in 1970.  Despite a considerable increase in hot air produced by politicians over the last four decades, it has not been enough to compensate for the BTU’s needed to heat the additional space.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders are still living in the era of “Happy Days.”  Few have been honest in facing up to the reality that human beings are pushing beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.  Pay attention.  How many elected representatives of either party this coming Earth Day will speak of climate change or the need for contraception and family planning?  How many will ask us to alter our lifestyles or diets or to hang out the clothes instead of running the dryer?  How many will propose a hefty tax on fossil fuels to encourage innovation and conservation?  How many instead will make promises of endless economic expansion, “clean coal,” and ever higher standards of living? 

Earth Day, then, was a moment for crunchy granola and batik.  Earth Day now is a time for candor and courage.  Four decades have elapsed, and despite local success stories—a river restored or a dam removed--things have not improved.  The world is in peril.  There is still time—barely—to save the planet.  But there is no longer an instant to waste. 

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