Earth Day turns 41, now what?

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As of April 22, Earth Day will be 41 years old. Started in 1970, this annual observance offers an opportunity to review the state of the earth and of the movement to save it. Many will focus on the thinking of Gaylord Nelson and Dennis Hayes, the "official" founders, and what they originally intended.

The problem with Earth Day is that it is usually accompanied by two divergent approaches. One is the nice, feel-good style of school observances, all about how we each can individually make a difference. The other is vaguely or explicitly apocalyptic, all about how dire the threats to our existence are.

It is easy to fall into despair about the future because there really are dire threats: global climate change, declining crops yields, increasing water stress, escalating extreme weather events, much faster rates of species extinction and deforestation, depletion of natural resources, to mention just some.

It is hard to find a balanced and sensible way forward in all this. New technical and scientific possibilities are seen by some as magic bullets to solve one or another of our environmental challenges. Others seem determined to dash any hopes for a better future, to find nothing but signs of impending disaster.

The environmental movement is not really a single movement with a unified approach. Some organizations focus on electoral activism (the League of Conservation Voters), others on preserving undeveloped land (the Nature Conservancy), others on legislative action and coalition building (the Sierra Club), others on threats of species extinction, to list just a few.

Alongside these movements, there are many scientists and inventors working hard at finding new and better ways of accomplishing energy production, manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Additionally, there are many organizations, including unions, which organize to fight particular health and environmental threats, and there are many millions of people who strive to make better choices for the environment in their own lives.

We need to recognize the need for all these approaches. We need to unify a real understanding of the truly dire threats with a positive recognition of new scientific developments, with the understanding that the various environmental crises we face are not primarily technical problems but require mass movements and the involvement of tens of millions of people.

Earth Day is a moment to recommit ourselves to protecting the planet, and to building the mass movements and coalitions necessary to saving humanity and the planet on which we depend.

Image: Stephen Thomas // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0