The first Earth Day was in 1970. Students at San Jose State University full of fervor buried a brand-new Ford Maverick (an awful car anyway) as a symbol of the death of the internal combustion engine. Predictions were dire, poverty would increase, food would run out, potable water would disappear, and pollution would cause the extinction of humanity by the turn of the century.
Fortunate for all of us alive today, and as we celebrate Earth Day 2020, the predictions largely did not come true. it is not, however, because there was no need to change. Predictors fell into the logical fallacy of “If we keep doing tomorrow what we are doing today this will be the result”. Since people, what is popular, and technology all change constantly these weak models tend to present grossly erroneous predictions. In my blog post “Predict the Future” I discuss this fallacy (here).
I remember as a young teenager waiting in a long line on our day (you could only get gas on certain days depending on your license plate number). It was the “Gas Crisis” of 1973 and gas had risen in price from $.25/gallon to over $.80 in a matter of weeks. When we got to the pump in our 1963 Impala (the 4 door, not the cool 2 door model), we filled the tank with leaded gas. As I recall we got about 13 mpg with that car. It took decades before the combination of policy changes, markets, and time fully eliminated leaded gas from the market, but it did. You simply cannot find leaded gas anymore, to everyone’s benefit. This and other changes threw the doomsayers models off and we are alive today as a result.
In the April 2020 National Geographic, they celebrate Earth Day 2020 with a clever format that basically has two magazines in one with two covers (as shown above). My favorite article in this issue is by Charles C. Mann. He notes, amongst other things, that food production has grown faster than the population despite the population doubling during the last 50 years. Primarily in the less developed world people are living longer, there is less poverty, fewer child deaths, more education, more people with electricity, and better access to clean water. As he notes in his article “The chance that a child will be hungry in our era is lower than it has been in recorded history”. I love how he closes the article “humans are terrible at foreseeing the future.”.
Does this mean we are out of the woods and don’t need to be diligent about continuing to improve efficiency, create more sustainable power, reduce, reuse, and recycle? Of course not. The only reason we have made the positive changes we have over the last 50 years is because we have remained diligent in demanding changes in policy, technology, and behavior.
I emphasize behavior because policy and technology are not something that most of us have much control over. We tend to adopt new technology as it is practical, useful, and affordable. This is typical of markets, and if you have ideas and skill go for it. For most of us the greatest influence we will have, however, will be in our behaviors. This is something that we have a great deal of control over.
You cannot double the population of the world and not have an impact on it, any more than you could double the population of your house and not feel the impact. It is obvious that the climate is changing, as it has in generations past. Some places are more wet, others drier, most places are warming up at least seasonally. Things that once grew well in an area now do not, and where there once was plenty of water, now there is not. We see this in Nebraska where laws were passed banning digging wells past a certain depth and entire counties have been lost to productive agriculture. We see it in Guatemala where lack of rain has caused economic hardship and even death as people with few resources lose their crops, land, and even lives.
As stewards of the world, and not just inhabitants of it, we have significant power by our choices, our actions. Every time you or I take a bag to the grocer and don’t use a disposable one we make a positive difference. For some people this will be a passion, and for others it will be a sideline. That is OK if the number who ignore it are very few, though there will always be a few. In my popular blog post about managing change (here) I lay out how identifying your core values and developing a few key skills and habits allows you to not only cope but thrive amidst rapid change. This type of personal mastery allows your flexible adaptation to a changing world, including taking proactive steps as a steward over the environment.
I was alive for the first earth day, though I don’t remember it. I am certainly aware and engaged 50 years later for Earth Day 2020. I will almost certainly not be here in 50 years for Earth Day 2070, though you never know for sure, but my children certainly should be. As I strive to be a good steward today, I am eating less red meat and processed foods, using my sustainable bags made from recycled plastic, and driving so that I drive fewer short trips and combine tasks. Thinking of technology changes my 2015 Honda Accord hybrid is getting between 40-50 mpg, a bit better than our old 63 Chevy Impala. I support legislation that encourages or even requires more thoughtful and sustainable energy, manufacturing, and agriculture. I am generally in favor of market-based policies that make sense and recognize the long-term costs of goods and services. This is how I am trying to live with intention and use my behaviors to be part of the solution, to be sustainable for my life and that of my children, grandchildren, and beyond.
You are an individual and are certainly not me. What is your intent? What decisions and actions can you make today that will reflect your thoughtfulness and intent? The primary control you have is over your own behaviors. I wish you well and thank you for taking your stewardship seriously.
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