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April 21, 2008

Earth Day's Mid-Life Crisis

Posted: 01:37 PM ET

Nature tends to run amok on us this time of year.   Up North, the sap runs.  Out on the West Coast, the gray whales are migrating.   Here in the South, we go out in the driveway and make snow angels in the pollen.  Somewhere, birds are doing a mating Lambada.  And just outside the window, the squirrels are merry.

But we also run amok on Nature.  Tuesday, for the 39th year in a row, we'll celebrate Earth Day .

Forgive me  for being a bit jaded, but for the 39th year in a row, we'll hear a litany of global threats, and a promising list of solutions that are Just Around the Corner.   How real is all of this?  I'm pretty well convinced of the problems, but are we conning ourselves on how easy the solutions are?

Or, put another way, are we making a little mistake here by marking our relationship with Nature by relegating it to a third-tier holiday?

No doubt, a lot has changed since the first Earth Day.  Solutions abound.   And no doubt, some of the problems have gotten worse.  Cars burn a lot cleaner than they did back in 1970, but Americans own more of them and drive a lot farther.   Rivers are cleaner, so is the air, and keystone species like the gray wolf, once almost gone, are doing so well that we're developing an itch to kill them again.

But we're losing habitat and open space.  We're losing other species.  And global warming is the 800-pound gorilla in the atmosphere, threatening to change almost everything about the way we live, most it for the worse.

For at least the third time in my life, we're seeing a steep rise in public and political awareness on the environment.  The first one inspired the first Earth Day, following a series of appalling environmental stories.  The worst of them was the epic tale of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, so befouled by industrial waste that it caught fire and burned.

Fast-forward two decades to 1990.   Earth Day that year featured a mass rally on the Washington Mall emceed by Tom Cruise, and a star-studded special on ABC.  We're talking two hours in Prime Time here, but alas, it wasn't enough to Save the Earth.  Once again, the crescendo in public concern followed a wave of awful environmental stories:  The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; medical waste and sewage washing up on New Jersey beaches; the first dire reports on global warming and the ozone hole; and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  (Note that while global warming has gone from theory to the ugly brink of reality, each of these other problems have at least partly calmed down:  No more Chernobyl like disasters, cleaner beaches, no mega-star oil spills, and a slowly-resolving ozone crisis, thanks to international cooperation.)

But like the 1970 phenomenon, interest waned within a couple of years.

Global Warming is keying the latest resurgence in environmental consciousness.  The hopeful part of me says maybe it will stick this time.   The jaded part of me sees our unabated addiction to oil and coal, and the fact that China and India are poised to outdo this country in greenhouse emissions - with far fewer controls than the U.S. has.

 It remains to be seen if we'll do any better this time around at maintaining a commitment.

Does Earth Day help?   Undoubtedly, it provides a focus where there otherwise might not be any.  But there's also a kind of a seamy underbelly to Earth Day.  More specifically, I've recently received publicists' pitches for carbon-neutral vodka and climate change chocolate.  They stood out amidst the deafening roar of other pitches for a green everything.  Some are sincere and legitimate.  Some are a cynical howl.  Bottom line:  I'd be a little skeptical when the same marketers who want us to consume the Jesus right out of Christmas (literally) have latched on to Earth Day as the latest, greatest hook to sell us stuff we surely don't need.  Perhaps the best take on this is a piece in an unlikely place - the current issue of Advertising Age,

We can't consume our way out of environmental problems.  And we can't wish away environmental problems by anointing ourselves as "carbon neutral, " either.  But enough grinching from me.    Happy Earth Day.   Cinco de Mayo's only two weeks away, so maybe I'll eat the worm this time.  And here's a link to what's happening to the agave plants that make our tequila.....

 Peter Dykstra   Executive Producer    CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: Uncategorized


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Ken in Dallas   April 21st, 2008 2:32 pm ET

It's a shame, isn't it? Like so many other social phenomena in our culture, (and I use the word with some hesitation) Earth Day is an institutionalization of false hope. "Give the enviro-loonies their Earth Day and that'll help keep em quiet the rest of the year."

The powers-that-be have grown a bit more sophisticated since Marie Antoinette, and "Let them eat cake."

The use of Earth Day to defuse social pressure over the environment is a tried-and-true political maneuver. It works just like the NFL and the NBA, in the following sense: by creating a focal point of hope for people deeply concerned with a particular issue, you distract them from the fact that your real policy opposes that hope.

Another really vivid, though otherwise unrelated, example of this pattern is the result of getting poor Black kids fixated on the NBA: it gives them the hope that they too can get a big payday in the NBA, and they pursue this false hope to the exclusion of academics. This keeps them happy as children trying to live out a fantasy, while dooming the vast majority of them to lives of ignorance and poverty.

The use of icons of false hope to keep the populace under control is by no means new. If we didn't have Earth Day, the people might notice that real policy is under control of people who are making huge profits by encouraging us to continue to accept the status quo on their terms. Earth Day is mainly a way of distracting us from the real fight over the way we live our lives on a daily basis, an entertainment event and institutionalized false hope to keep us under control.

Bread and circuses, anyone?


Phil in Georgia   April 21st, 2008 8:31 pm ET

The Concrete is Creeping -
When is our society going to realize we can't keep gobbling up land to build strip malls, shopping centers, and subdivisions. Yeah, everyone wants their own little 1/2 acre lot, or whatever. Having your own home - the American Dream - needs to be put into perspective. We can't keep sprawling into our rural landscape so we all can have new homes, on newly paved subdivision streets, which require multi-lane highways and new shopping centers with vast, hot, and impermeable parking lots. On top of all that infrastrure, and BECAUSE of all that infrastructure, we need ANOTHER lane or two on I-85 so everyone can DRIVE to and from the city. All that smog, all the heat island effect, all the impervious surfaces, all the green lawns that need watering, AND all that frustration of being in traffic - just to live in that stupid subdivision. This blind, senseless process is not sustainable.

Most people should live in the city, where they work. Leave the farmland to our farmers. Leave the forests to provide clean air and water, and recreation, a place for animals and plants to thrive. Conservation is the key.

Yeah, I know it sounds radical, but I think we should all live in high density develoments (vertical) with planned park space, green space. No automobiles. Mass transit only. Rural develoments would be only for agriculture and natural resources management. Just look at aerial photography of any sprawling city in the United States? The concrete is creeping. Too bad there are no Google Earth images from 20 years ago. Comparisons would really open people's eyes.

Ronnie Van Zant wrote about suburban sprawl back in 1976, a year before his untimely death, "All I Can Do is Write About." What would Ronnie think of our country if he were alive today?


Sceptic   April 21st, 2008 10:13 pm ET

"Earth Day" – a day celebrated on the birthday of V.I. Lenin, who founded the Soviet Union. If you want to see an ecological disaster, look no further than Russia and the other countries that made up that short-lived empire whose legacy lives on in the misery of its former citizens (outside capitalist Estonia) and our ivory towers.

The problem with the environmental left in the U.S. and Europe is the convergence of politics and environmnetalism. A meaningful cost-benefit analysis is rarely made when it comes to regulations and hard decisions (i.e., nuclear power's great potential vis a vis oil and coal despite some small but potentially horrific risks) are shrugged off. Global warming? The popular impetus is 90% political/emotional and 10% science – the earth is constantly shifting tempurature, and Al Gore has the hubris to blame it on mankind? Sure, our activity is contributing, but probably only a small part of the overall current warming trend (that trend is not global, albeit widespread).

If you want to do the right thing by the planet, have an political/economic system that is free, transparent, respects property rights and the rule of law, utilizes the price mechanism, and is not subject to the demagogery of communism or an emotion-driven set of people who can't think through the consequences of communism or even something as simple as ehtanol's impact on the poor of the world as food prices increase.

Until the left owns up to these inconvenient facts, its "truth" will be little more than a pseudo-religious myth that will cost us billions and not benefit mankind beyond Al Gore's publicist and his pool-heating company.


craig @ endangered earth   April 21st, 2008 10:15 pm ET

The concept of Earth Day is good. I did my first recycling drive on Earth Day 1970 and have since created a syndicated radio show (Rock and the Environment) that ran nationally for 10 years, and a number of web sites about Endangered Animals (which well over 100,000 people visit each month).

So all in all, Earth Day has been a healthy part of my life, and I am sure many others.

However, what I don't like is the fact the 'Earth Day' focus is decided 'at the top' and not by everyday people (like me...and perhaps you).

I don't always want Earth Day to focus on Energy (as it has for the last ??? 10 years) I'd like it to be about Endangered Animals.

I know...what a suprise.

But I don't have a say in the topic. Nor does anyone else I know. And I think that is unfortunate. It has turned me off a bit from the Earth Day event.

Now, there are those that say Global Warming is a more important issue to focus on then the Endangered Animals issue. Perhaps. But certainally not to the animals, nor to those that care for them.

In essence I think we should 'mix it up' a bit and focus on some of the other issues Earth faces.

And I think we should consider letting the public decide what issues Earth Day should focus on.

With the advent of the Internet this is certainally possible.

I mean, if American Idol can make it possible for the public to pick the best (ok...sort of best) singer...then why can the powers that be (say the Earth Day Network for example) let the public pick the best (worst?) environmental issue to focus on for Earth Day.

Just a thought.

Have a Happy Earth Day.

And care about an Endangered Animal.

Craig Kasnoff

http://www.endangeredearth.com


Pete H.   April 22nd, 2008 12:26 am ET

You were not celebrating or being part of the same Earth Day affairs that I was. I saw hundreds of people just doing little things over and over ... pulling invasive weeds, planting trees to impove riverside fish habitat, organized beach cleanups, comparing ideas and successes and failures. We showed up at kids events and helped remind them of the wonders of nature and the problems and some reponsible actions like even wash your car on the grass, not the road.

Yes sprawl and global warming consume our publicity, but many many little and significant steps also happen and the results are visible and long lasting as well. A long polluted piece of public shellfish harvesting tide land is about to be reopened, thanks to the efforts of a whole community here.

Environmental stewardship is a much larger part of our public education now and there is much hope for the future.

May we NEVER stop celebrating Earth Day and Earth Month and reminding ourselves of our many successes. We will need the sustinance for the ongoing efforts ahead.


Barry in Texas   April 22nd, 2008 8:33 am ET

Wake up people! Didn't Carl Segan point out the fact that there are billions and billions of stars in the universe, many with potentially habitable planets.

Let's finish depleting this one and move on to the next. Isn't that the "disposable" ethic that civilization thrives upon? Ever since we evolved from hunter-gatherers into civilized, specialized, inter-dependent communities, we have generated waste and excess as natural by-products.

And, who decided that humans aren't and integral and important part of Nature? Religion-based arguments aside, it should be obvious that human beings in all their glory are as much a part of this planet's natural processes as butterflies and plankton. An objective observer of our planet could easily view ecological changes such as global warming as the planetary equivalent of puberty: evidence that Nature is about to bloom into a self-enforced reproductive phase sending offspring into the Cosmos to regenerate herself on other suitable worlds.

Unless you are willing to go back to living hand-to-mouth off of the land, give up your fantacies that global warming is necessarily a "bad" thing, and accept your role in the forthcoming Natural Revolution that propels our world (not just our species) into the next phase of wonders and miracles of the life cycle of Nature.


Bill   April 22nd, 2008 12:13 pm ET

The "solution" does not come in the form of a single action. We can all do little things help make the air cleaner and avoid major-pollutant causing actions.
With gas prices skyrocketing remember electric is an option. 90% of Americans commute 25 miles or less in a day. An electric car can get you there with zero air pollutants.
Forget the suit made of hemp, just make your commute green.
http://www.zapworld.com


Ken in Dallas   April 22nd, 2008 1:41 pm ET

Quoting Sceptic:

"If you want to do the right thing by the planet, have an political/economic system that is free, transparent, respects property rights and the rule of law, utilizes the price mechanism, and is not subject to the demagogery of communism or an emotion-driven set of people who can’t think through the consequences of communism or even something as simple as ehtanol’s impact on the poor of the world as food prices increase.

Until the left owns up to these inconvenient facts, its “truth” will be little more than a pseudo-religious myth that will cost us billions and not benefit mankind beyond Al Gore’s publicist and his pool-heating company."

You make a very important about the detrimental impact of the ethanol fad on food supplies, an impact that falls most harshly on the world's poor.

On the other hand, unfettered laissez-faire market systems are also flawed, in that they foster a focus on narrow, selfish goals, and a herd mentality. The speculation phenomenon has to be damped somehow, or you get an endless series of bubble and burst cycles.

You have to place some serious limits on the "free market" concept, because unlimited freedom is the law of the jungle, and it means predators rule. Civilization ruled by predators isn't really much in the way of civilization, is it?

Quoting Barry in Texas:
"Wake up people! Didn’t Carl Segan point out the fact that there are billions and billions of stars in the universe, many with potentially habitable planets."

Do you have any idea how far a light-year is? Interstellar travel is a fantasy. No scientific path to faster-than-light travel has even been hypothesized. In other words, we'd best forget Sagan's speculations and accept that we get just this one planet, and if we break it, we're done; if we're going to make it anywhere as a species, we have to make it here. There is no "evidence that Nature is about to bloom into a self-enforced reproductive phase sending offspring into the Cosmos to regenerate herself on other suitable worlds," because there are no other worlds in our future.

It's interesting that Barry is willing to view our homeworld as "disposable", and to state that civilization thrives on "the disposable ethic". I've watched the so-called "ethic" of disposability since its inception in the early 1960's (before that, we never thought ourselves rich enough to make things just to throw them away), and the simple truth about "disposable" is that it arises from nothing more noble than laziness, irresponsibility, and the desire to turn people into wage slaves by selling them an endless stream of products designed to be garbage.

As for global warming, think for just a minute: the atmosphere is a thin envelope of compressible fluid surrounding the earth, by its nature slowly dispersing into space.

Like anything compressible, it is an elastic system, and what happens when you add energy to an elastic system?: it starts to exhibit oscillatory behavior, which we perceive as weather. So far, so good, but when you continue adding energy to an elastic system, its oscillations increase in amplitude, and sometimes in frequency.

In the planetary atmosphere, this means increases in movement, which generates relative extremes of temperature and humidity. We see this result as storms, droughts, and unpredictable changes in seasonal temperature extremes. The direct consequences of these changes are loss of life and property. Secondary results include loss of habitable lands, famine, and the spread of disease through flooding. Tertiary effects extend to widespread starvation and war.

Now, what beneficial effects would you attribute to global warming that offset the rather dramatically negative ones I can think of?


Brian   April 22nd, 2008 2:01 pm ET

I just want to add again that there is no cure for the environmental crisis we are now facing. Well, that is not exactly true. Another ice age is the only solution. It only shows how humanity has used this world up. It would normally be millions of years between ice ages, maybe hundreds of millions, but we have pushed it to what, 100,000 years. We should be proud of damaging our world so much. And before you even start, no I am not one of those environmental fools that believe burning an SUV dealership will solve all of the world's problems. How long do we have? 100 years or so? Maybe. I think I will see it in my lifetime. Too bad.


Aaron   April 22nd, 2008 5:42 pm ET

In reply to Barry in Texas: That's the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard. I had hoped, at least initially, that you might be joking... The fact is that WE decided humans aren't an integral part of Nature. That's what traditional Western civilization prides itself on! We have separated ourselves from Nature so successfully that we now are forced to re-evaluate our way of life simply to safeguard our continued existence. "Let's finish depleting this one and move on to the next." Are you kidding me? What gives us the right to deplete this planet in the first place (and with it, all the other creatures with which we "share" this world)? It's exactly this attitude–your self-righteous, self-serving ideology–that presents such a dangerous precedent. I suggest you read "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn–maybe it'll knock some sense (and hopefully some humility) into you.

In reply to sceptic, who I'm fairly sure meant sKeptic: You present the same non-sense argument against climate change as any other critic. The fact is, humans (and American's especially) are so unbelievably proud of what we can accomplish–of what we've invented, manipulated, provided, withheld–we lose ourselves in our own hubris. How is it that we are the most powerful species to have existed on this planet thus far (a fact we tout with reckless abandon), yet we cannot admit (or even entertain the idea) that we ALSO have the capacity to negatively effect the environment. There are always trade-offs in life; I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. But if you think we could have invented, sustained, and fourished as we have without ANY negative consequences, environmental or otherwise, then you're fooling yourself my friend. We're a smart breed...but we're not that smart.


Amy   April 23rd, 2008 2:09 am ET

Quoting Bill

"An electric car can get you there with zero air pollutants."

Just where is the electricity for this "zero air pollutants" car coming from? From your electric company of course! Most electricity in the United States is provided by plants that burn coal. So of course there are air pollutants related to these cars. They are just "invisible" to the end user. That doesn't mean they don't exist. Nice try to sell an overpriced inefficient product to the succeptible greenies. These are the same people who are convinced they can be carbon neutral by buying carbon offsets. I have enough trees thriving in my own backyard to make my whole family carbon neutral. When are we going to do something REAL???


Franko   April 23rd, 2008 6:46 am ET

  
Brian wrote: "Another ice age is the only solution"

Let us do the Gaia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis
CO2 will not stop the Ice Age from coming.
However, we can change the Albedo
http://profhorn.meteor.wisc.edu/wxwise/AckermanKnox/chap2/Albedo.html

The Coolies could go to Antarctica, taking the Polar Bears with them.
Warmies could farm in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada.


Ken in Dallas   April 23rd, 2008 10:48 am ET

Amy,

While your point about the sourcing for electricity is a good one, that's not the whole story. Firstly, the internal combustion engine is grossly inefficient; close to three quarters of the energy consumed by a gasoline engine goes out the tailpipe as waste heat. Electric motors can achieve efficiencies of 85% to 90%, so the energy input required to get a given amount of useful power out of an electric motor is around 60% less than in an internal combustion engine. Electric motors are also about 2/3 lighter than IC engines, which makes for lighter vehicles.

The fact that electric transport is so much more efficient than internal combustion engines means that electrics are of REAL benefit to efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Electricity is also, in a sense, the ultimate flex-fuel, because it can be generated from any number of sources. Your criticism applies to most of the electricity we now have on the grid, because more than half of it comes from coal. That same criticism becomes invalid with regard to electricity generated from wind, solar, hydro, and even nuclear sources, and is mitigated with regard to electricity generated by burning natural gas.

I'm glad to hear about the vast and thriving forest in your back yard. It must be nice to have a large acreage you can dedicate to trees so your whole family can be carbon neutral on that basis.


Phil in Georgia   April 23rd, 2008 10:45 pm ET

Stop the concrete!

Let's please focus the attention to ridding ourselves of cars. So what if we move to a ZERO pollution car. As long we have this "I'm going to live in a subdivision in the suburbs and drive my car everywhere I need to go" attitude, we still will need cars. It doesn't matter if you have a few trees in your backyard to make yourself "carbon neutral." Thats the most rediculous statement in this whole discussion. That sounds like something Al Gore would say. The point is, we can't just keep moving our sprawl at these crazy rates into land that should be in forests or agriculture. We need to build our communities on grids, or some type of pattern that would make mass transit feasible. I'm tired of hearing people complain that their municipality doesn't have good mass transit when they don't realize you can't send buses into the streets of subdivisions that wind all over in no logical or efficient pattern. Streets must be designed to make mass transit efficient.

Everyone cannot have their own lot in a subdivision. This type of development must cease. As I stated earlier, this only leads to more pavement and less real environment. Impermeable surfaces, heat islands, land that does not support life. For those of you who think I'm nuts, you're only thinking about the present. You're not thinking 50 years down the road, a point in our own children's lifetime.

Anyone ever read "The Geography of Nowhere?"

For the shortsighted folks out there who would call my argument left-wing extremism, you're totally wrong. Its not a political thing at all. Its about sustainability. Sure we've gotten by with this crazy means of land development for a long time, but with the rate of population growth, its got to stop sometime. We've got to have land to farm. We need our forests for air and water quality. We cannot keep transforming our lush, green, productive lands that support life, provide food, water, and clean air into a suburban heat island of continental proportions.

Of course, I am all for electric cars, for the time being. Its not like we can change the landscape we've already built overnight. I am all for getting rid of the internal combustion engine. Lets get those electric cars on the streets ASAP, but stopping the sprawl is the most important argument that I feel no one in the media seems to be addressing. Getting a grip on the sprawl problem would by itself address global warming (less heat islands, less need for long distance transportation) and there would be less impermeable surfaces which cause flooding downstream.


Ken in Dallas   April 24th, 2008 10:19 am ET

Phil,

I don't think increasing population densities is the answer, either. The fatal flaw in your argument is that, no matter what we do with the human population, consumption and pollution are, and will remain, proportional to population. Putting more people into smaller amounts of land generates its own set of issues, as Tokyo, New York, and all the world's highly population-dense cities demonstrate. If you're really interested in sustainability, curbing human population growth is the only way.

Your argument holds up as far as it goes, and sprawl is rampant primarily for the same reason people kept buying and driving SUVs until the price of fuel exceeded $3/gallon: the people who lead businesses get rich on the old program. This is the fundamental political problem in the way of any sustainable solutions.

The trouble is, human beings, as they've grown more and more powerful, have chosen to be less and less wise. The eruptions of resource wars among us have already begun; since the most powerful among us persist in being so unwise, (and the consequences of overpopulation and the squandering of resources have been forecast for at least 50 years) the most probable outcome is that these problems will self-correct in the ugliest ways possible: famine, pestilence, war, and death.

When it comes time to establish a really sustainable social order, there won't be a population problem any more. Since the people we have here now refuse to comprehend what's at stake, the conversation we're really having is about building the basis on which a much smaller surviving population can build a sustainable future after the carnage subsides in 40 or 50 years.


Franko   April 25th, 2008 2:55 am ET

  
" much smaller surviving population"

The Greenies agenda: "want humans DEAD"
"Extreme and even moderate environmentalists have killed millions of people with their lies."
http://th.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070812180947AAbPn7Y

Greenies need to practice dying before foisting it on others !


Hugh (Bart) Vincelette   April 26th, 2008 2:37 am ET

While millions around the world participated in Earth Day , religious right wing groups like the Family Research Council , called it " a calculated attack on the sanctity of human life."


Franko   April 27th, 2008 5:32 am ET

  
The message clear: We can make significant large scale changes.

It all started by picking up the candy wrapper blowing in the wind

Move more Earth than Mother of Earth
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040709083319.htm

Eliminate sunspots by our CO2 emissions.
http://www.spaceweather.com/


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Bob Quinn   July 31st, 2009 3:47 pm ET

Isn't this all futile right from the start? We are all alive right now therefore one day we will all be dead. It's the second law of thermodynamics.

So what do we do? We keep on trying to do the best that we can even though it will eventually not be enough and we and the planet will die. And yet, something, somewhere will continue to be. Life, the universe, whatever, will continue until it doesn't. The numan species is merely a passing phase.


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