Celebrating Earth Day in the midst of the biggest crisis in human history

“It is impossible to exaggerate the awesome nature of the challenge we face: to determine, within the next few years, whether organized human society can survive in anything like its present form,” – Noam Chomsky

We celebrate Earth Day during a global crisis of unprecedented scale and complexity, and I’m not talking about the pandemic. We find ourselves in the midst of an extreme ecological crisis, comprised of several crises intersecting and amplifying one another. The only reason why most of us aren’t able to perceive this is because for the moment most people in the developed world are insulated from the worst consequences which are already bringing pain, disease and death to millions of people around the world. The people sacrificing their health in an illegal mine won’t read this article, neither will the enslaved children who harvest cocoa or  the indigenous people fleeing their forests which are being burned for our cattle. The thousands of people who die each day from malnutrition are well aware of the impacts of extreme droughts or floods, but they have little power to change the world’s economy. On the other hand the people who have a lot of relative economic power, like you and me, are too well insulated from the consequences of our actions to take serious action. We can’t afford to wait for the crisis to knock on our door for us to act in an appropriate manner. If we allow climate change or deforestation to spiral so much out of control so that we all experience extreme consequences it will be too late to do anything effective. We are crossing major tipping points beyond which the restoration of the equilibrium on which our civilization relies is going to be impossible. The risks we’re facing are going to impact the comfort of our lives, they will threaten the survival of billions of people and they will destabilize our political institutions to a point where the safety of every person on Earth will be in jeopardy. Don’t take my word for it, read through this recent report produced by a panel of military and intelligence experts outlining the security risks that every region of the world will experience in the coming decades. The crisis is real and it’s here right now.

“our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” – Naomi Klein

We don’t start from scratch

Fifty years ago the first celebration of Earth Day brought millions of Americans out on the street to fight against the pollution of our air and water. In the aftermath, some of the first serious environmental legislation was passed into law : the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act as well as the creation of the EPA itself. Americans didn’t achieve this simply because at the time politicians decided that it’s important to have breathable air and drinkable water. The creation of Earth Day was preceded by many decades of emerging public consciousness on the dangers and unjust nature of industrial pollution. Thousands of people across industrialized cities had raised their voices against the unregulated smog coming out of the factories, but they were not heard by the politicians until major disasters such as the Black Smog of London in 1952 which killed thousands of people in a matter of days and pushed the British government to adopt the Clean Air Act of 1956. Another example was the smog accident in Dorona, Pennsylvania in 1948 that pushed the US government to invest millions in the research of pollution which was the cornerstone of the environmental legislation that followed. Even these tragic incidents alone wouldn’t have forced politicians to action without the organized involvement of thousands of people and the support of the media which brought these issues to the attention of the general public. 

Today, we celebrate Earth Day in a completely different climate, literally and figuratively. Our scientific understanding of the ecological issues grew exponentially over the decades thanks to a myriad of technological advances. We have a much deeper knowledge of the workings of Earth’s life-supporting mechanisms, the scale of our impact on these ecosystems as well as the projected risks from their further deterioration. Earth Day is going to be celebrated by one billion people around the world, making it the largest secular holiday. The number of people who are becoming aware of the ecological crisis is rapidly increasing, unfortunately in parallel with the worsening consequences of the destabilization of Earth’s ecosystems. We also live in a different climate, the Earth has warmed significantly in the past fifty years, and unless we take urgent and effective action we can be sure that the warming trend will continue and the consequences that come along with it will follow as well.

I don’t believe that anybody who visits moretreeslessassholes.org is going to be satisfied with the progress we have made since 1970, but it is important to acknowledge that without this progress we would be in an infinitely worse spot. For one, if we didn’t sign the Montreal Protocol we would likely be dying of skin cancer, because of the complete depletion of the ozone layer. But the most important progress wasn’t necessarily legislative, but rather conceptual. The emergence of an environmental consciousness and an awareness of planetary-scale issues within the minds of a billion humans is a massive achievement. Without this knowledge we would have no hope for creating the kind of change that we’d like to see in the years and decades ahead of us. 

One word : organize

If we want to create a better world, we need to continue to organize on every level of our social life. We were able to achieve this shift in perception, because we were able to organize and that’s precisely what we need to keep on doing with more energy and enthusiasm than ever before. We need to keep on organizing locally with neighbors : we need to prepare our communities for the irreversible damage that we’re going to endure due to the climate crisis, but we also need to restructure our cities in ways that mitigate further pollution and emissions. We need to organize politically with our fellow citizens on every level and create the necessary political movements that can swiftly push our local, regional, state and international institutions to action. Our personal implication on each of these levels is absolutely essential. We need to create the space in our minds and in our lives to create a more sustainable world through our direct action and involvement. Changing our consumption habits, getting us involved in the production of our food or the restoration of our ecosystems are essential pathways towards a future that comes anywhere close to sustainability. 

“If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.” ― Terence McKenna.

Let’s keep in mind that the people who are most responsible for the destruction of the ecosystems are very good at organizing, they are putting all their time, energy and money in making sure that they keep their wealth and power. Science-denying, corporate-propped assholes have been running our political institutions and economies for way too long. It’s hard not to get discouraged by the political defeats of some of the most promising movements like the one behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign or similar left-wing movements across the EU. It’s normal that we feel disheartened, especially considering that we are in a dire need of urgent and bold political action. But let’s keep some perspective, these movements are based around ideas and values that are not tied to any particular person. The people who passionately fought for healthcare and climate action in the US will continue to do so with or without Bernie. They created the biggest and most engaged political movement in modern American history, and opened up the public debate on some of the most crucial and hard-pressing issues facing humanity. Building upon this progress is the only way forward, there is no time for doubt or desperation. We either win or we learn. And if at the end of the day we really end up losing, it’s our entire species that will be mourning our loss.

Thanks to the active participation of the members of my Facebook communities I have been an active part of the public conversation on environmental issues for the past seven years. Without really being able to look at our impact we’ve been contributing to this wave of awareness and action that is reshaping our collective mind. We’ve changed the way we look at climate change, deforestation and pollution. We began understanding our own role in the ongoing destruction and we have made progress by changing our lives. We keep on spreading information across countries and continents, we keep on learning from each other. My hope is that we’ll continue to do this in more effective ways in the coming months and years. Fifty years from now, on the 100th celebration of Earth day I’ll be (hopefully)  82 years old, I want to be able to look back at the time that passed and I want to feel that I found the courage and audacity to do whatever I could to bring humanity to a place where our children and grandchildren can hope to keep on living and loving each other.

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