Yesterday was the 53rd Earth Day. It began in 1970 as a single-day protest over the planet’s environmental degradation, while in 2022, it was an opportunity for a quick social media post to virtue-signal and return to drinking your bottled water.
Earth Day, and the larger environmental movement in the 1970s, has had many successes. The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act have been incredibly important domestic wins. It is true that the average American has some understanding of our impact on the environment. There are ideas out there for finding a way forward.
Earth Day, however, isn’t really about Earth. It is about homo sapiens. Earth is doing fine. It’s been here for 4 billion years, and depending on the behavior of our sun, it is likely to be the third rock from the sun for another 4 billion years.
Everything that exists on Earth is a product of pressure and gravity. Pressure from the mass of the Earth creates the dynamo that powers our magnetic field, creates heat that finds it way as volcanic hot spots, springs, and in conjunction with water, plate tectonics.
Meanwhile, Earth’s gravity holds the gaseous volatiles that would otherwise escape into the solar system, what you know as our atmosphere of nitrogen, oxygen, and a growing concentrate of carbon dioxide and other gases.
This energy, of course, is also what created life that eventually would become you and me. We are, after all, just a bunch of water and carbon that once was in the ground. And to the ground we shall someday return.
Climate change is real, and climate has always changed the environment. It has been much, much, hotter than present day, many times, and it has been much, much colder. Global warming is happening, and has been happening since the last glacial maximum 26,500 years ago. On a timescale of billions of years, this occurs subtly over thousands or millions of years.
But we know that humanity is affecting climate change. We can only guess to what extent. The primary problem for habitability is the speed which it is happening. It is almost certain that thousands of years of climate change have occurred in the last 150 years. We are living through the Holocene Extinction Event. Is it a coincidence that hominids like the Neanderthals or the Denisovans disappeared right around the time homo sapiens shows up? Or that the North American megafauna all disappeared right when the Beringians began their settlement of the Americas? Climate surely was an influence, but the coincidence of humanity’s arrival and a great immediate dying? Not a coincidence at all.
What I want to convey here is that Earth’s actual threat is a dying sol, not the destruction caused by the human species. Earth has been homo sapiens-free for 99.999952% of its existence (I did the math), and I would be willing to bet it will long outlive us as well. Sorry, Elon.
And what is the state of humanity today? The human worldwide population has more than doubled since 1970, putting more pressure on the habitability of our climate. 25 percent of our tropical rain forests are gone. Despite some advances in non-carbon energy production and storage, we use more fossil fuels than ever. In fact, the fate of 21st century Eastern European peace may hinge on how much Western Europe is willing to do without natural gas.
We can ban plastic shopping bags, or at least charge 10 cents for them, but we are creating more plastic than ever, and dumping a product that doesn’t biodegrade, or recycle easily, into landfills and the oceans. It is nearly certain that nuclear weapons will be used in anger sometime this century, and the spent fuel from our previous dalliances with nuclear energy sit with no feasible long-term storage option in sight.
People are still ridiculous, of course. Nearly half the country is filled with climate change deniers, or at least they say that even if deep down they know better. Even among my friends, I have frustrations. One person told me that trees are one of the world’s greatest renewable resources. Of course, 95% of our old growth forests have been cut down. If a Sequoia tree takes 1,000 years to mature, how exactly is that renewable, and California wildfires just wiped out 10,000 of them that we had protected. My Grandmother showed me an old photo of my Great Grandmother, a big, strong man that I remember well, standing next to a giant ponderosa he helped cut down. She asked me rhetorically, “Isn’t that neat?” and I had to tell her, no, it’s not. Grandma, those trees don’t exist anymore!
Now the immature trees burn like matchsticks. People insist on telling me that our California chaparral is fire-tolerant, which is incorrect. It is indeed fire adapted, but on a scale of 1 or perhaps 2 fires per century. Many fire-adapted trees and other flora need to be fully mature for their fire adaptations to help it survive. As an example, the Tecate Cypress in San Diego County is critically imperiled, because existing trees aren’t old and mature enough to drop seeds when fire approaches.
We have saved the Bald Eagle, the Grizzly Bear, the Bison, and the California Condor, but we are no closer to learning to co-exist with the habitable world.
So if “Save The Earth” is a useless neologism, what in the heck are we doing?
What we really want, of course, is to save humanity, and to save humanity with our first-world lifestyle, and if we save a few other species along the way, even better.
This isn’t to say that Earth Day is completely useless – indeed, a real day of celebration, reflection, and action is needed. I want to emphasize action, because honestly, your social media Happy Earth Day post does nothing. Literally nothing.
Here are some ideas for action to protect some of our lands:
- Donate To The Mojave Desert Land Trust
- Donate To The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
- Donate To The Nature Conservancy
- Donate To The Indian Land Tenure Foundation
There are more ideas out there, but just a couple I’d recommend, right now:
Is there reason to hope? I often ponder this. Forget the alarmist articles showing up in your Google News like “We have 3 years to stop global warming to 2 Celsius!” Those are ridiculous and truth is, we don’t know exactly to what extent the planet will warm to or when. My gut feeling is that it is already too late. We will be dealing with further environmental catastrophe. Miami and Venice may or may not be going concerns at the end of the century.
There will be massive waves of human migration due to weather, available water and resources, and habitability. With that will come conflict and violence. It isn’t clear that we will be able to protect humanity and other species at the same time.
But I do believe a lot of people will rise to the occasion. These may be my grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Despite the doom and despair I read in the news, and see in the skies, I have to think they will find a way. I feel powerless to help. I am a simple IT salesperson, who drives a gasoline-powered vehicle. All my food comes in single-use plastic. I sometimes waste energy leaving lights and the television on. I run the air conditioner when I probably don’t need to. I don’t know how much I can help, and this does bother me.
I can only hope that the worst of immediate, humanity-caused, climate change happens in a flash, during this transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene era. That once the glaciers melt, sea level rises, the weather shifts into more extremes, and a shock is wrought upon all life on Earth, that there will be a moment that we are more ready to co-exist with all life on this planet. I will have long passed on, and this blog won’t exist in any archive, but perhaps with a second chance, humanity can live in the next epoch right.
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T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.