Earth Day 50: Have We Made any Real Progress?

Posted on April 22, 2020 by Christopher Davis

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. The coronavirus pandemic has consumed the world’s attention, and thus it seems likely that Earth Day and environmental issues will unfortunately get less attention than otherwise might have occurred.

The first Earth Day in 1970 changed my life. In particular, Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, and a little book called The Environmental Handbook, had a powerful influence on my thinking and career path.  I decided my calling was in solving environmental problems, stopping pollution and protecting nature. Over the last 50 years, this has taken me through a brief career in environmental engineering, a rewarding 30 years in environmental law, and most recently economic advocacy to leverage private sector solutions to climate change.

So where are we now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day? There has certainly been progress in building environmental consciousness, institutionalizing environmental protection, developing environmental laws, building a global cadre of environmental professionals, reducing at least the most obvious forms of air and water pollution and cleaning up hazardous waste sites. In most places, at least in the developed world, the air and water are cleaner.

Yet on a macro scale, many indicators of environmental quality have declined significantly since 1970. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the physical impacts of climate change are accelerating, and we are making little progress in implementing the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting average global warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation continues to shrink the world’s tropical forests, biodiversity is being lost, species extinction is accelerating, wetlands are disappearing, and our oceans are becoming degraded. Groundwater and surface water resources are being depleted and nonpoint sources threaten water quality. Toxic pollutants are ubiquitous. By most accounts, the world’s ecosystems are in worse shape than they were in 1970. Our expanding human population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the world’s natural systems on which we all depend.

So, while we have won many battles in environmental protection and the implementation of environmental laws, we are losing the war. The imperatives of economic growth and resource consumption have overwhelmed the forces of environmental protection and conservation. Our generation has been responsible for many great technological and social advances. Yet as we mark the 50th Earth Day, our environmental legacy is troubling.

Perhaps the lessons of the coronavirus crisis—and the need for prevention, global collaboration, and commitment of resources necessary to anticipate and combat such crises-- will enable the kind of concerted action needed to successfully confront the systemic risks of climate change and global ecological degradation. We have the tools and knowledge to solve these problems; we lack only the moral imperative and collective political will to do so--and the sense of urgency that inspired me and so many others on that first Earth Day.



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