April 22, 2016. A soft rain falls on ground dry for over a week, just at the time when trees and perennial plants need water to spur their awakening from winter. Here in Pittsburgh, the prospect of a dry summer bodes caution in planting, and plans for irrigation. But in the great plains and the valleys of California, the fourth year of drought holds dismal prospects for food production and personal comfort. Climate change becomes more and more difficult to deny. Yet, the rhetoric bludgeoning the airwaves from political candidates remains oblivious to reality. From the right, denial of human agency in climate change threatens an acceleration toward destructive actions. From the left, promises of structural remedies face certain defeat in a Congress paralyzed by entrenched vested interests of the fossil industry. In the middle people rise in frustration to clamor for attention to the real needs of daily life – clean air, safe water, secure food supplies, and the dignity of meaningful work. Under all the confusion, the Earth is screaming for relief of the daily insults imposed by human civilization.
The voice of the Earth rising is a song of hope for the future. It resounds in the chants of students to “Save the Planet NOW!” It surges through the bodies of people working together to create urban community gardens and Community Supported Agriculture. It flows with the sun and the wind to power thousands of communities and homes with renewable energy. It ripples through the gatherings of over 100 Mayors as they seek to build resilient cities. It shimmers in the eyes of children who seek a future they can thrive in. The voice of Mother Earth whispers in each of our ears, if we listen for it. The urgency and passion of that voice can empower the people to rise in defense of our own life support system. Nothing less than our own survival is at stake.
The first Earth Day was marked by a confluence of movements coalescing around a movement. The choking smoke of Pittsburgh, burning rivers of Chicago, oil-blackened beaches of Santa Barbara, and fish kills in Mississippi were impossible to ignore. Ten million people clamored for change. The voice of the public outweighed the influence of vested interests to pass laws to protect clean air, safe drinking water, endangered species, and protect from toxic substances in the environment. Many of these laws have received amendments over the years, mostly to offer exemptions, or to weaken specific provisions. In the intervening fifty or so years, the pendulum has swung back to protecting private business interests over public interests. The foundational environmental laws of that time addressed mostly the symptoms of the obvious pollution- corks in smokestacks, stoppers in effluent pipes, liners in landfills, parks and refuges with resource extraction permissions.
It is time for a New Earth Day! – a commitment to save our life support system with tangible actions by 2020. Hindsight 20/20 vision offers ample lessons of ways human civilization has seeded its own destruction. Using that insight to plan forward for a sustainable future will require not a re-tinkering of the 1970’s laws, but a new consensus based construction of laws. The system changes necessary for a sustainable future move the economy from a fossil-fueled base to a renewable energy system, including buildings designed with zero net energy, water and waste elements. Agriculture practices will move away from the pathological addiction to herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to practices based on restoring fertile ground, wasting less, and reducing the amount of meat in the American diet by half. The endless stream of toxic chemical products and byproducts of consumer goods move away from the resource extravagant industrial practices based on plastics and fossil based polymers to green chemistry solutions inspired by biological systems. Enzymes and bio-synthesis rather than high temperatures and harsh chemical treatments will design consumer products that can be reused, recycled and repurposed in a circular economy to replace the modern culture of converting raw material to trash. These kinds of pathways offer endless opportunities for local jobs that add value and create local economies and strong communities. None of them require new technology, only new values, new choices.
To make system changes requires the will to seek a just transition for people living today, and a commitment to provide a viable planet for our children and their grandchildren. For the interests wedded to the fossil world, laws that change the value of investing in the ways of the future will give greater returns. We face the moral imperative to provide a viable future for the next generation. Preserving the functions of the living Earth guided by laws of nature tested over millions of years will save humanity. Restoring our life support system calls for people to rise in response to the screams of Mother Earth. Renewable energy, sustaining fertile ground, green chemistry – these are the pathways to a sustainable future.