April 21, 2008
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
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