Earth Day this past Sunday springs from the understanding that our physical environment can be irreversibly damaged and how we treat it matters, every day of the year.
That admission was not always controversial. For example, after the dust storms of the 1930s, soil conservation measures were quickly instituted. Timber companies planted trees after they cut others because they understood that the vast forests nonetheless were not endless.
Evidence of human influence is widely visible. Satellite photos show housing subdivisions replacing farmland, wide swaths of what used to be the Amazon rain forest burned for crops, receding glaciers, spiderwebs of roads connecting oil wells, highways packed with traffic. Most of that may look like progress at first glance, but there’s more: rafts of trash on the oceans, brown clouds over cities and power plants, a bright orange river, the black scars of leaked oil near pipelines.
Progress comes with costs.
Some costs are less visible to those who aren’t specifically looking: more extreme weather across the globe, an increase in respiratory problems caused by air pollution, species extinction, the climate-related shrinkage of inhabitable and arable land for housing and agriculture. Those problems can be easy to ignore until they hit home, and they indeed will.
The inescapable conclusion is that the physical health of our plant is inextricably tied to our economies, our politics and our quality of life.
More than a century ago, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The loss of pollinators in farm country seems far removed from an upscale East Coast restaurant, but that separation is a dangerous illusion.
One of the phrases associated with Earth Day in the past was “Save the pieces,” emphasizing the interconnectedness of the diverse parts of the environment. Right now, we’re destroying pieces at an alarming rate, without really understanding that those pieces are important for clean water that will support life, breathable air, healthy soil able to produce food and vital ecosystems that sustain all of that.
The Trump administration’s push to dismantle regulation is dismantling protections at an alarming rate, without adequate understanding of what will be lost or recognition of the scope and permanence of the potential losses. The reaction to contrary evidence has been to defund and discredit the research that links causes with effects. Denying reality, however, will not change it.
As big and beautiful as it is, this planet is not boundless. Its resources are finite. And as powerful as this nation has been, it does not control the natural world. The United States is falling behind the rest of the developed world in its actions related to climate science, pollution and other impacts of human resource consumption. Withdrawing from the 2015 Paris climate-change accord is just one example; the direction the Environmental Protection Agency is moving is another.
Wishful thinking will not mitigate the effects of poor environmental decisions. Instead of ignoring science, we should all be working to understand and refine it. Our small personal data sets do not disprove national studies; they are part of them, perhaps even extremes that help to define the mean.
Acknowledging the validity of others’ scientific results does not mean capitulating to others’ restrictions; it means participating in creating systems that will sustain us all. Viewing that as a geopolitical loss is shortsighted and self-defeating.