It’s a bleak sort of Earth Day today. All the major newspapers are carrying headlines about President Biden’s global eco-summit, about his pledge to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030, but so far as I have seen, none use the words “Earth Day” to mark the moment. This environmental holiday was created in 1970. I was created in 1971. We’re both 50-ish now, and feeling the mileage.
There has never been an Earth Day like this. As a kid, I remember huge gatherings on Boston Common to plead for politicians and industry leaders to find their conscience and realize there is no profit in a dead world. All too often, these pleas were met by the likes of James G. Watt, Ronald Reagan’s notoriously anti-environmental Interior Secretary, who never met a mine he didn’t love or a tree he didn’t hate.
As a member of Generation X, it has been my special fate to bear witness to the long and ever more visible arc of environmental dissolution that has led us to this moment. From acid rain to the ozone layer, my youth was suffused with a daily drumbeat of looming ecological doom. “What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison?” asked Hunter S. Thompson in 1988. I read that when it came out, realized he was talking about me, and had to agree: There really was nothing to say.
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That arc brought us here, and boy howdy, here really sucks. More than a year into a lethal pandemic that is nothing more or less than a global environmental calamity itself, some 3 million people have died worldwide. Somewhere around 315,000 people in India were diagnosed with COVID-19 just yesterday, a record likely to be broken either today or tomorrow. In the U.S., the death toll lurks close to 600,000 souls, with millions more infected. There were almost 65,000 new cases diagnosed here on Wednesday.
How, then, do we look on Earth Day in this grim context? For me, COVID is a microcosm of the larger issues that have made defending the environment such a frustrating and often futile endeavor. As with the environment, the people in power knew the dangers represented by COVID, but chose not to act in order to protect and defend capitalism. A segment of the population believed the lies being peddled by those in power, and now stand as an immotile barrier to progress. The roof is on fire, but they would rather burn than be convinced that the flames are real. The money is just too good.
As with the environment, it did not have to be this way. We had ample means to stifle the COVID crisis, but failed or actively chose not to time and again. Even today, with new infections exploding, governors are dropping their states’ mask mandates, because conservative peer pressure deems it time to do so. It’s as if we made a bizarre sort of suicide pact with people who don’t know what death is, even as they march resolutely into its maw.
Still, at long last, efforts are being taken to undo the catastrophe of the prior presidential administration, which spent its four critical years obliterating environmental protections while opening national parks to the strip miners and the pipeline layers. In its final year, the Trump administration almost completely ignored COVID, and now, most of the horses have left the barn.
Because of that, because of the failure to thwart circumstances that give rise to viral variants, many of the things we are required to do today are permanent fixtures. COVID may always be with us in some form, much the way radioactive fallout from nuclear tests is now part of our DNA. That’s all of us, every single one.
The same can be said for the state of the environment: The damage that has been done is only now beginning to reveal itself in deadly storm seasons, endless droughts and terrifying infernos. Any actions we take will be on the level of mitigation only; the damage is baked in and inexorably coming no matter what we do.
The environment and COVID: They knew, they failed to act, and now the damage not only appears to be permanent, but we live under the ever-present threat of severe outbreaks capable of harming or killing untold numbers.
While it can be argued that we are within sight of bringing COVID under some semblance of control, the same is not true of the ongoing and worsening phenomenon of climate disruption. The climate crisis is, truly, only just beginning.
Several years ago, Truthout’s invaluable environmental reporter Dahr Jamail embarked upon a journey to the various environmental graveyards of the world. He sought out the places where climate disruption is not just happening, but where it has been visibly happening for a long time.
Jamail put his hand into the melted tears of a dying glacier and touched the corpse of the Great Barrier Reef. He smelled smoke in the rainforest, heard the ticking of methane bombs beneath the melting tundra, and watched the ocean as it slowly devoured a fishing village that had stood safely by the shore for generations.
Upon his return, Jamail wrote:
“Writing this book is my attempt to bear witness to what we have done to the Earth. I want to make my own amends to the Earth in the precious time we have left, however long that might be. I go into my work wholeheartedly, knowing it is unlikely to turn anything around. And when the tide does not turn, my heart breaks, over and over again as the reports of each succeeding loss continue to come in. The grief for the planet does not get easier. Returning to this again and again is, I think, the greatest service I can offer in these times. I am committed in my bones to being with the Earth, no matter what, to the end.
Please take this Earth Day and do likewise. Be with the green and the blue, the astonishment of life we have been gifted to witness and be part of, for we are inseparable from that which created us on this small space-borne rock. Rouse yourself in defense of this precious thing, for it is not all gone, not yet, and that which can be saved must be saved by us.
The world came together to join the Montreal Protocol, and today the damage to the ozone layer is visibly diminished. The world came together to act on acid rain, and it was eradicated so thoroughly that some climate denialists argue it never existed. It did, and now it is all but gone, because of us. It can be done, because it has been done.
Knowing this, it’s time to reject greenwashing and false promises from the powerful when they are proffered. After 51 Earth Days, only a revolution of the mind, body and spirit can save what we have left.