Earth Day, 2015

Peter Wood

Ah, Earth, ah Spring. As Earth Day dawns this year, we can all feel a little younger, and we can delight in the wide open spaces. Younger because geologists have determined that the world’s oldest fossils came from 3.43 billion years ago. That shaves off 30 million birthdays. Wide open spaces because astronomers have identified a giant void in the universe, 1.8 billion light years across. There is room there for 10,000 galaxies.

There are many more reasons to celebrate Earth Day, some perhaps more serious. Our hospitable planet has never been a better place to live. We are an adaptable and ingenious species that has found ways to thrive from the fringes of the Arctic Circle to barren atolls in the mid-Pacific, and from the Himalayan Plateau to Death Valley. We have expunged dread diseases such as smallpox and have come close to wiping out others such as polio. We have found ways to feed more than 7 billion people despite repeated Malthusian warnings that mass starvation was staring us in the face.

Technological progress has leaped every existential barrier we have met so far—and we are nowhere close to exhausting the resource of human invention that has made this possible. And rather than ravaging the Earth to achieve the material abundance we now enjoy, we have found ways to clean and preserve it. The air and water in the United States are at unprecedented levels of purity since the age of industrialization began.

So let’s celebrate Earth Day as an occasion to recognize an astonishing achievement. Billions of people are leading healthier and longer lives than ever before.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. There is a grim-faced contingent sitting in the corner at this birthday party simmering with resentment and wishing the cake would collapse. I am speaking of the eco-pessimists who—ironically—call themselves sustainability advocates. In their view, the apparent abundance is an illusion. The healthy and clean environment we enjoy is a lie. Things are, as they see it, very bad and destined very soon to get much, much worse. They can hardly wait.

I say this as one who has spent the last several years immersed in the study of the sustainability movement, especially its capital, the American college campus. My co-author Rachelle Peterson and I recently published a full-length study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, which offers a Dante-esque tour of the inferno that sustainatopians are warning us awaits humanity—that is, if we don’t listen to them. Human emissions of carbon dioxide will set off catastrophic global warming. The seas will rise. Storms will rend the land. We will perish from drought. Wars will ensue. Social order will collapse.

And that’s only one of the disaster stories they have cooked up. The sustainability movement is an encyclopedia of things that could go wrong. We have reached “peak oil.” We will run out of metals. Mass extinction of the Earth’s wild animals is underway. The fish will disappear from acid oceans. Our machines will turn on us. Hollywood caters to these fantasies with a seemingly endless stream of post-apocalyptic movies in which the sustainability survivors struggle on amidst the waste.

Of course, not everyone who is attracted to the concept of “sustainability” is secretly in love with and longing for the serves-them-right apocalypse. Many mistake the movement as a rebranded call for conservation. The mistake is understandable. Sustainability often parades itself as focused on curbing wasteful consumption, saving energy, and protecting natural resources. If only. Behind that green façade, many sustainability activists work towards an agenda that has more to do with radical restructuring of human society than it does with the environment.

The radical version of sustainability blames free markets and private property as the root threat to the world. Socialist author Naomi Klein recently captured its spirit in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Sustainatopians of this sort also have little affection for the institutions of representative self-government. They prefer regulation—regulation by state agency if necessary, but regulation by “trans-national” entities if possible.

The sustainatopians in that radical wing of the movement can be distinguished from much more moderate sorts who favor market solutions to global warming such as cap and trade, and technological optimists such as Steven Cohen, the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Cohen assumes the accuracy of IPCC-style prognostications about global warming but turns his attention directly to the questions of what sort of investments in infrastructure are needed to deal with the foreseeable problems.

I see sustainability advocates of Cohen’s stamp as joining my celebration of Earth Day as a happy occasion. The grim-faced progress-deniers in the corner this year seem to have decided collectively to sit it out in near silence. Or what be called noisy silence, as in the pre-Earth Day concert on Sunday on the National Mall. In years past, Earth Day was a day of protest on behalf of neglected environmental priorities. It began in 1970 with mass rallies. But what is left to protest when things are going so well? The sustainability movement is—literally—hunkered down to protest college investments in fossil fuel companies. For the last month, students have been sitting in at university offices as part of what the movement calls “Escalation Spring.” Presumably they are tired and cranky and just in no mood to celebrate.

Too bad. The world is young and full of wonder, and those corridors of power are cold and dark. Hey, kids, it’s spring. Come out and play.

This article also appeared at The Stream.

Image: "Earth Day cupcakes" by Andrea R // CC BY-SA

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