Earth Day is a good time to think about roots. Roots of the plants and trees now shooting forth leaves and flowers, soon vegetables and fruits, and roots of the Earth Day movement. Forty-five years ago the first Earth Day gathered 20 million people from all kinds of causes to call for a stop to the flagrant destruction of our environment. Everyone from nuclear bomb and air pollution opponents, to civil rights activists, anti-war activists, women’s rights and GLBT rights advocates, and workers rights advocates came together to protect clean air and clean water. It was a rare moment of unity of purpose, exhilarating, and fresh, and hopeful.
The plethora of foundational environmental protection laws passed during the decade from 1970 to 1980 set a course for the regulatory battles we face today. Those early efforts to curtail the unrestrained extraction and use of resources without regard for the natural resources put corks in the smokestacks, stoppers in the emission pipes, liners in the landfills and established elaborate permit processes. Today, the EPA Toxic Release Inventory reveals that over 5.2 billion tons per year of toxic materials are released into the air, water and land legally, by permit.
This Earth Day in the second decade of the 21st century, it is time to go down to the roots, to the sources and causes of our pollution habits. We need to look at the problem from a different direction. My clearest enlightenment on this process came from Eric Beckman, a green chemist who uses bio-mimicry to create non-toxic medical products. We were on a panel talking about how people can use greener approaches to home and garden care, and he rejoined to a person who was recommending a switch to an electric lawn mower from a gas powered one: “You are just buying your way to pollution in a different place, the coal plant that powers your electric mower instead of the gas you burn on site. The truly “green” solution is to plant lawn that requires no mowing, perennials that only grow a few inches high in the first place!” The root of the problem of emissions from power plants, factories, chemical production, farming comes from re-thinking the process to prevent the pollution at the source.
This is the exciting challenge of our time: to prevent pollution at the source. That means to generate the energy we need from renewable resources and from non-combustion technologies such as fuel cells so we can stop burning fossil fuels. It means shifting our food production system away from mass mono-cultures that require tons of fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide and a treadmill of increasingly toxic products to stay ahead of pests. We can adopt organic and locally adapted sustainable agriculture practices that restore and regenerate fertile ground, protect watersheds and add biodiversity to our agricultural landscapes. It means we design products to be safe, not diluted toxics. It means we design things to be re-used, re-purposed or reclaimed instead of turning from hot new item to trash within two years, or less.
We see today all around us the signs of stress from our living earth. Our early assumptions that the sky was so wide, the ocean so deep and the land so endless that people could not possibly affect it have proven to be false. We see measurable changes in the composition of our atmosphere, in the acidity of the oceans, and in the fertility of the ground. Drought, extremes of flood and storms present us with the unintended consequences of 200 years of civilization based on extractive industries. We must now shift to replenishing and regenerative industry to move our economy to a state of equilibrium with nature. We can enjoy the conditions of abundance and robust resilience evident in any balanced ecosystem. Just as the roots of a two year old maple sapling extend more than a foot below ground, branching and thrusting intimately into the soil, we have many branches and opportunities for exploration into the new roots of our economy. We can take this Earth Day as a starting point for living in harmony with nature, according to Nature’s laws.
Plant a tree and care for it. The Earth will thank you.