Earth Day – 2019

Earthrise by Bill Anders, Dec. 24, 1968

A thin haze dimmed reflected light from the moon. Thin enough to allow dots of starlight to penetrate the atmosphere and with moonlight illuminate the neighborhood.

The haze was just enough to know it was there.

I moved trays of kale, broccoli and parsley seedlings from the garage to a pallet near the driveway in the hazed light of a waxing gibbous moon.

Today is the 50th Earth Day.

Earth Day is less about a view of night’s starry presence than it is about seeing Earth as a whole. Few times in our history has a photo of Earth made such a difference in so many lives as Earthrise taken by astronaut Bill Anders. It sparked the movement that brought us Earth Day which continues to this day.

We humans have not been the best stewards of Earth since April 22, 1970.

Early Years

Vague notions of ascendancy were taught by our grade school teachers. In the seventh grade I was segregated from neighborhood friends to join a college-bound group of peers in a special classroom. I entered the National Honor Society in high school and when I graduated in 1970 had no clue what I wanted to be. I knew I was college bound, not because I wanted that, but because the nuns said I should be. That I finished college at all was miraculous. I felt a sense of relief as President Nixon appeared to heed a shared need to do something about the environment. When he created the Clean Air Act (1970), and then the Clean Water Act (1972) I felt Earth Day had done its job.

Military Service

When I left Iowa in 1976 for basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. I had little idea of what being a military officer meant. I knew the Vietnam War was over and I wanted to serve as my father had. The context was a paternal grandfather went to prison for draft evasion during World War II. Given a choice, I would serve. Among other things, military service taught me the environmental cost of war.

The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating. ~ Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general

Oil consumption and related carbon emissions are significant contributing factors to degradation of our atmosphere. The use of depleted uranium in military ordnance, notably during the 1991 Gulf War, created a complex array of environmental problems including introduction of carcinogens into the environment. We destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, including water and sewer systems, and contaminated surrounding ecosystems. The use of defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam created sickness among soldiers and decimated biodiversity in the country’s tropical rain forests. We should include potential use of nuclear weapons which studies have shown, in a limited nuclear war, could create a nuclear winter making 2 billion people food insecure.

Awareness of the military’s environmental problems is a lesson learned.

Worklife

I worked 25 years in the transportation business, including an 18-month stint with Amoco Oil Company in Chicago. What goes almost unnoticed as part of background noise in modern society is the amount of fossil fuels burned by trucking, railroad and ocean-going transport vehicles. When I was maintenance director for a large trucking firm, I spent $25 million per year purchasing diesel fuel for our vehicles. That doesn’t count fuel burned by our affiliate companies which used independent contractors who fueled their own semi-tractor trailers. The fundamental dynamic during this period was I needed a job to support our family and given what I perceived as a lack of opportunity after college and military service I took what I could find, staying there for most of my professional career. I traded the environment for financial security. My main concerns were job performance and getting ahead. The nuns in grade school didn’t adequately prepare me for this kind of worklife. Environmental issues were off the table.

Retirement

When I left transportation ten years ago the climate crisis became more real.

In 2013 I participated in The Climate Reality Project conference in Chicago, taught by former Vice President Al Gore. It made a difference to learn the science of climate change and in the following months I began presenting the information learned in public speaking, in letters and articles in the newspaper and in my daily life.

We entered a period of politicization of everything. Facts ceased to matter. Income inequality worsened and the U.S. government seemed owned by the richest people. The scientific facts about climate change became a political choice: do you or don’t you believe the science of climate change?

Climate change is real and is impacting our lives now. Even banks are seeing how it can impact their business. From an open letter from the Governor of Bank of England Mark Carney, Governor of Banque de France François Villeroy de Galhau and Chair of the Network for Greening the Financial Services Frank Elderson:

The catastrophic effects of climate change are already visible around the world. From blistering heatwaves in North America to typhoons in south-east Asia and droughts in Africa and Australia, no country or community is immune. These events damage infrastructure and private property, negatively affect health, decrease productivity and destroy wealth. And they are extremely costly: insured losses have risen five-fold in the past three decades. The enormous human and financial costs of climate change are having a devastating effect on our collective well being.

The authors call for an orderly transition to a low-carbon economy. “The stakes are undoubtedly high,” the authors wrote. “But the commitment of all actors in the financial system to act on these recommendations will help avoid a climate-driven ‘Minsky moment’ – the term we use to refer to a sudden collapse in asset prices.” In other words, the climate change bubble could burst.

The Future

Less than 24 hours remain in this 50th Earth Day, a brief moment in Earth history. Whatever humans do, the earth will be fine. It’s human life and society that’s at risk. My takeaway from 50 years of considering Anders’ image of Earth against a background of the immensity of space is the same as when I first saw it: we humans are all in this together. It is going to take more than Earth Day to bring political will to act on climate.

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