April 22 is Earth Day 2016. Each Earth Day marks another milestone in a profound human reawakening to the truth that we are children of a living Earth who survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth community.
The first Earth Day, in 1970, brought 20 million people to U.S. streets, parks, and auditoriums in a massive demonstration of public support for political action to limit human harm to nature. As the first mass demonstration in defense of nature, it marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. More than a billion people in 192 countries now participate in Earth Day each year.
The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring planted the seed. Prior to her book, the word “environment” rarely appeared in mainstream media. Silent Spring became a New York Times bestseller and drew worldwide attention to the devastating impact of our toxic wastes on human and animal health.
By 1970, environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute were working with key political leaders to draft landmark environmental legislation. The massive turnout on the first Earth Day demonstrated strong public demand for political action.
In response, Congress quickly authorized the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, Marine Mammal Protection, and Endangered Species Acts. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed them into law.
The second turning point quickly followed. In 1972, two seemingly unrelated events took the movement to a deeper level. The crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft photographed Earth from space. That image of Earth, a finite shining jewel suspended in the vastness of dark space, became one of the most iconic images in history.
That same year, scientists working in MIT’s Systems Development Lab, published the results of a computer simulation demonstrating that if human consumption continued to grow at current rates, critical Earth systems would begin to collapse early in the 21st century. A dry, technical Report to the Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth,” sold 12 million copies in 37 languages, challenged the fundamental assumption of mainstream neoliberal economics that there is no limit to growth in material consumption, and seemed to set the stage for dramatic political action.
We have only begun, however, to confront the implications for how we must now learn to live.
The corporate sector, recognizing a threat to profits, quickly mobilized to support the election of politicians loyal to the myth that growth in GDP and corporate profits holds the key to prosperity for all. It has prevailed for nearly four decades, with the support of academic economists who remain wedded to GDP growth as the economy’s defining purpose. The resulting cost to life and the human future is incalculable.
The economic, social, and environmental consequences of decades of flagrant abuse of corporate power at the expense of democracy, people, and the living Earth have provoked a massive political backlash. The current demand for deep change corresponds to an emerging third stage in humanity’s awakening environmental consciousness.
1. The first stage, provoked by the publication of Silent Spring, focused attention on the impact of industrial toxins on the health of humans and other animals.
2. The second stage, spurred by the image of Earth in space and MIT’s “The Limits to Growth,” introduced a planetary systems perspective.
3. The third stage features the voices of indigenous people whose traditions have long honored Earth as our living mother, of scientists who speak of Earth as a living superorganism that self-organizes to maintain the environmental conditions essential to life, and of religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, who opened his “Care of the Earth” encyclical with a reference to Mother Earth.
Those of us who succumbed to the false promises of Western consumerism at great cost to our Earth mother, our living Earth family, and ourselves, are Earth’s prodigal children now returning home.
We have only begun, however, to confront the implications for how we must now learn to live. This Earth Day let us share and celebrate the possibilities.