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Reflections on Earth Day

Apr. 22, 2015 by | Comments (7)
Earth, the "pale blue dot", the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image courtesy NASA).

Earth, the “pale blue dot”, the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image created by Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC; courtesy NASA).

Today is the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. Originally proposed by activist Denis Hayes in 1969, it quickly gained momentum and was officially inaugurated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson the following year. Nelson chose the date because it was late enough in the spring that people would be able to hold outdoor rallies and it would not conflict with most campus spring breaks or the Easter and Passover holidays. It also happened to fall on the day after the birthday of famous conservationist John Muir. (Although Nelson didn’t know it, it also fell on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, a fact which the anti-environmentalists used to claim that communism was behind environmentalism). It is now the largest secular holiday in the world, with observances in over 200 countries involving millions of people.

Yet it is also a bittersweet occasion. When I remember celebrating in 1970 and in many campus rallies each Earth Day since then, environmentalism was overwhelmingly popular. Why would anyone vote to make their own world worse, or vote for more pollution and environmental destruction? Yet now we have a country where environmentalism is under attack, and people willingly vote for politicians who give breaks to polluters and let public safety be compromised. Indeed, the biggest environmental issues of our time have become so polarized that people willingly believe lies about climate science because of ideology. It’s gotten so bad that the anti-environmentalists have even tried to destroy the legacy of Rachel Carson, as I pointed out in a previous blog. How could it have come to this?

Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, the environmental movement was popular with nearly every part of the political spectrum. Few politicians, Democrat or Republican, wanted to be associated with polluters or openly serve as the mouthpiece for environmental exploiters. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which designated over 9 million acres as wilderness free from any human impact, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 373-1, and the Senate by a vote of 73-12. We don’t usually think of Richard Nixon as a friend of the environment or as an enemy of big corporations, but his administration set up the EPA. Congress passed and Nixon signed into law the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. Going even further back, it was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who first led the nation into conservation and established the National Parks and National Forests. John D. Rockefeller, who made his millions from the Standard Oil Corporation, nevertheless donated millions to preserving and enriching public lands. Conservation and environmentalism were once broadly popular among both Democrats and Republicans. It wasn’t until Reagan came along with statements like “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen ‘em all,” the weird idea that trees cause more air pollution than automobiles do, and an administration that was actively and openly against environmental protection and regulation, that the Republican Party began to become friendly with environmental exploiters and hostile to environmental protection and regulation.

One of the most influential and original thinkers of the environmental movement was Garrett Hardin. Originally trained in microbiology, he began teaching as a Professor of Human Ecology at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1946 and he spent his entire career in this idyllic campus setting stimulating generations of students to think differently about ecology. One of his most famous concepts was “the tragedy of the commons,” first published in 1968. He describes a parable (recycled from William Foster Lloyd, who first wrote it in 1833) about the old practice of everyone grazing their livestock on the “commons,” a grassy area or parkland that is shared by all the residents. The commons can only support so many cows or sheep, so if an individual farmer puts too many animals on the land, it will be ruined. However, a farmer does not own the “commons” and doesn’t have to pay for its restoration, so there is a dilemma: individuals acting in their own self interest in a free market without regulation will have no incentive to preserve a common resource. Instead, they will profit from exploiting and exhausting it as quickly as possible, since they don’t have to pay the costs of its restoration. Thus, most shared resources will be depleted or destroyed, even though it is in no one’s long-term interests to do so.

In economic terms, this is what is known as an “externalized cost”: the cost of depleting a common resource is not calculated in the original price of the product, and there’s no incentive for the capitalist to spend money conserving a resource they use unless some other kind of outside entity (e.g., the government) puts a tax or “cap-and-trade” or other restriction into effect that forces businesses to “internalize” these costs.

Much of environmental economics revolve around this central principle. In most parts of the world, exploiters of a common resource (the air, the water, the mineral resources, the forests, the fisheries, etc.) have little incentive to preserve this resource but instead tend to grab as much profit as they can in a short period of time. They then leave when the resource is exhausted—and someone else (typically the taxpayer) is left to clean up their mess. If you travel, you will see the scars of this practice: huge areas of forest that have been cut down and then allowed to rot with no effort to clear and replant them; scars of old mines and their tailings piles, many leaking toxic chemicals; old oil fields where the machinery is still there, rusty and broken, and the ground is saturated with spilled toxic chemicals; abandoned factories where the groundwater is full of waste products; coral reefs which are dead and bleached with no life around them; and so on.

This factor is certainly a big part of why people don’t understand that exploitation cannot last forever, and over the long run is bad not only for the environment, but for us as individuals. Another problem is the fact that people are not hard-wired to think in these long-term abstract realities. We are only concerned about our immediate future, and whether an environmental regulation might shut down jobs digging up dirty coal or polluting a common resource. Crafty politicians know this, and their usual ploy to distract the voter from the fact that they are poisoning our common nest is, “It will cost jobs.” Seldom does a voter think about the long-term reality that jobs come and go, but this planet is our only home, and if we foul our nest, we will suffer the consequences.

But the rabid attack on environmentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. As climate scientist (and Republican) Dr. Richard Alley points out in this video, just over a dozen years ago he was testifying in front of Congress about climate change on the behest of Republican politicians who wanted his serious scientific assessment of the dangers. Environmental concerns were still a bipartisan issue, and it was bad politics to advocate the rights of polluters. But in the last dozen years, we’ve seen an enormous swing, where politicians of a certain party are now almost universally advocating anti-environmental policies. Meanwhile, a simple internet search shows that their largest donors are energy companies and other polluters. There is  a certain “news” network that plays one anti-environmental screed after another, confident that its listeners won’t notice the planetary alarm bells happening all around them. These climate events they deny or ignore, even as we suffer record hurricanes, record heat waves, and record droughts. It’s hard to imagine how protecting your own planet and your own environment could ever become a dirty word, but it has in certain circles.

There are undoubtedly many causes to this change in attitudes about environmentalism. Certainly, there is greater political polarization, with people on the right wing only listening to media that tell them anti-environmental messages. There is the tribal tendency to wrap up one’s identity in a right-wing ideology, even if these same people don’t really have anything against a clean, healthy planet. But as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway described in their outstanding 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, a lot of of it was a deliberate effort in the last dozen years by the energy companies to fund anti-environmentalism and build a huge apparatus of publicity for anti-science, especially climate change denial. Now we have embarrassingly ignorant politicians grandstanding on the floor of Congress about climate change, only to reveal their utter ignorance of basic science. Just two months ago, Sen. James Inhofe threw a snowball on the floor of the Senate, thereby demonstrating his utter incomprehension of the idea that weather is not climate. Weather is a series of short-term events on scales of hours to days, while climate is the long term averages of weather over decades or longer. Local weather events (like big snowfalls) can and do happen on a planet which is showing record warmth everywhere else. Or take the embarrassing spectacle of a Congressman mixing up “global wobble” (the long-term changes in the earth’s orbital motions over tens of thousands of years) with the short-term changes happening in the past century. Take the example of another Congressman arguing that when the ice in his glass melted, the water level never rose, ignoring the fact that most of the melting ice is on land. These are the people in charge of all our congressional committees on science and the environment, and as I’ve blogged about before, every one of them is a climate denier, and most are evolution deniers as well.

Meanwhile, while these clowns are running the circus, and demonstrating their ignorance with stupid stunts on the floor of Congress, they prevent the U.S. from catching up with the rest of the world on climate issues, and on addressing serious problems. Yet item after item of bad news about the environment comes several times a week now, and no one seems to listen. Thus, Earth Day today is bittersweet for me. It held such promise at the beginning, yet today it demonstrates how money can be completely corrupt politics so that many of us ignore dangers that stare us in the face.

I worry about my three young sons, who will some day be living in a world that my generation  and my parents’ generation and grandparents’ generation left fouled and polluted and on the verge of catastrophe. What will they think of us when they are trying to cope with the mess we left behind?

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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