Earth Day 2009

This week we will celebrate the 39th Anniversary of Earth Day, a holiday that in many ways coincided with the beginning of the mass environmental movement in the United States.  The first Earth Day, in 1970, was proposed by then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and organized by Denis Hayes, one of the truly effective leaders of the environmental movement.   Here in the 21st century, the planet needs protection more than ever, and we finally find a concern for sustaining the earth slowly entering the political mainstream.

The challenge in this increasingly urban world is to build an understanding of the importance of the biosphere.  Today, it is important because we need it in order to survive. As advanced as our technology is, we require the ecological services provided by sunlight, biodiversity, and the subtle and complex web of natural environmental relationships to provide us with air, water and food. We may someday be able to live without our planet, but that day is a long way off.

In addition to the services that humans require from the planet to survive, there is a deeper relationship with the biosphere that we need to acknowledge. Let’s imagine that some day we had the technology to live without the planet: Would we want to? Beyond sentiment and nostalgia, what does our relationship with the Earth say about our own ethics and values? 

We are a species that takes our domination of the planet pretty seriously. We are most interested in maintaining those forms of life that help us maintain our own. That is probably both logical and biological- we are very much attracted to the idea of survival. But we also take great pleasure in our natural surroundings. We want more than mere survival. Earth Day coincides with spring time and even here in Manhattan, many of us are thrilled to see the light green aura of life remerge as trees bud and flowers bloom.  This past weekend I enjoyed biking from the new waterside park in Harlem (just west of Fairway) down to the Intrepid along the Hudson. All over the Northeast, people are emerging from winter’s cold and rediscovering their gardens, forests and beaches. The preservation of these pleasures requires that we preserve and value our planet.

It is possible to imagine a world without nature. In fact, science fiction is filled with technologies that replace natural systems. When I was a kid I used to watch the TV cartoon, “The Jetsons”. The Jetsons was a cartoon about family and work life in the future. Cars flew through the air, your food came from a machine in the wall, the family dog walked on a treadmill—and there was no nature.  No trees. You lived up in the sky and no one ever looked down at whatever was going on below.  You never saw a mountain or the ocean. In Star Wars, the home planet is completely covered by a “world city”.  To find nature in that version of the future (or the past) you must travel to other planets.

Human imagination has a way of someday becoming human reality. Look at the “communicator” held by Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV show- now look down at your cell phone—anything look familiar? In the end, the preservation of our planet and its amazing beauty requires that we value it enough to control the technologies that damage it. Someday, the precautionary principle that we apply to the introduction of new drugs in the market place will need to be applied to the use of new production and product technologies.  In the United States, the FDA requires extensive testing of new drugs before they can be sold. We take the precaution of making sure we understand how the new drug interacts with the human body. We see if the drug’s desired effects are more valuable than its side effects.  When it comes to new technologies, we are all like the canary lowered into the cave to see if the mine is safe for humans.  If the canary comes back alive, we send the miners down. If the canary is dead, we don’t. Similarly, if a new technology kills us, or destroys the biosphere, we consider stopping it.

Technology makes modern life possible, but its use must be guided by a deeper understanding of its impact on the biosphere. On this Earth Day, it’s important to think about the Earth and our responsibility to our children and to their children. It’s our job to pass the planet to the next generation intact and in good repair. To do that we need to value the earth for more than what it provides to us, but for the miracle it represents.  Let’s make that the theme of this 39th Earth Day.

Earth Day 2009