From Earth Day to Earth Decade

April 28, 2000

By Michael Jessen

It's a few mornings after Earth Day 30; the planet and I are still hung-over. The third rock from the sun is reeling over the results of its latest report card. That many major Canadian media outlets have virtually ignored our Earth's prognosis has stupefied me.

On April 17 - well ahead of last Saturday's celebration of the first Earth Day held in 1970 - four prestigious organizations issued a report describing Earth's ecosystems as being in critical condition. Time magazine used the report as the basis of a special Earth Day 2000 edition entitled "How to Save the Earth."

More than 175 scientists contributed to the $4 million report which took over two years to produce. Assessing the health of the world's major ecosystems (coastal, forest, grassland, freshwater, and agricultural), "People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life" presents staggering statistics: half of the world's wetlands have been lost in the past century; 58% of coral reefs are imperiled by human activity; 80% of grasslands are suffering from soil degradation; 20% of drylands are in danger of becoming deserts; and groundwater is being depleted almost everywhere.

If anything could get us serious about saving our environment, this report prepared by the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank would seem to be the ticket. It has got motivation written all over it. In fact, it cries out for a response from we humans.

After reading of the report on three different environmental news e-mail lists that I receive, I eagerly scanned our national and provincial print media for more details. The Globe and Mail - which calls itself "Canada's National Newspaper" - carried a short six paragraphs headlined 'Unhappy Earth Day' in its April 20 edition, buried on page R5. The National Post, which seems to specialize in anti-environmental columnists to the detriment of real news, carried nothing.

On April 22, while the Globe and Mail carried a story about the worldwide Earth Day celebrations with their focus on climate change and global warming, the National Post gave us a 20-page special edition on the lives of the rich in Canada and a column crediting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with raising climate change as a global issue! The Vancouver Sun also ignored the new report, but to its credit quoted from an two-year-old report produced by the same four organizations in compiling 'A Balance Sheet for Planet Earth.'

The Earth has been sending out distress signals for more than 40 years. The thin shells of bald-eagle eggs that cracked because they were laced with DDT; the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery; and most recently, the news that the first quarter of this year was the warmest such three-month period ever in the United States during the 106 years of record keeping. Denis Hayes, who helped organize Earth Day events in 1970, 1990, and last Saturday, says politicians aren't dealing with the issue because the public pressure isn't there. But the public can only become aroused if it knows what is happening. A press that focuses on the lives of the rich and famous instead of the health of the ecosystems that temper our climate, purify and store our drinking water, recycle our wastes, produce our food, and support all of our economic activity is not doing us any favours. It does us a great disservice, acting like a fiddling Nero while Rome burns.

Sure things have improved for humans in the past thirty years. We live longer, we recycle more, we use more wind and solar power, and we've more than doubled our gross world product from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. What the Earth notices is that human carbon emissions have increased from 3.9 million metric tons in 1970 to an estimated 6.4 million this year. What the Earth sees is that its species are vanishing at a rate it hasn't seen in 65 million years. That 40 percent of its agricultural soils have been degraded. That half its forests have disappeared. And despite 30 years of Earth Days, these trends are accelerating.

I propose that Earth Day be scrapped and replaced with Earth Decade. We need ten years of sustained effort to begin turning things around. All of our media should have one writer/editor at least providing daily coverage of the Earth's success stories (and warnings) as we strive for sustainability.

Ford Motor Company, the sole advertiser in Time's special edition, has realized protecting the environment can produce two profit centers - one in-house by making its operations more efficient and the second in producing products like an electric bicycle and fuel-cell cars. Wallace Stegner, one of America's greatest writers, ended one of his essays with the following: "Environmentalism or conservation or preservation, or whatever it should be called, is not a fact, and never has been. It is a job." We should be thankful to William Clay Ford, Jr., Ford's new chairman for making it job one.

ONE SMALL STEP - Let our media and politicians know how you feel about improving Earth's environment. Polls consistently show 75% of you care. Young or old tell our media to report on the good things people are doing to help Mother Earth. Encourage all politicians to put the environment back on the front burner. Economies cannot remain forever healthy in an unhealthy environment. Contact your local electrical utility to find out about the best available compact fluorescent light bulbs which will save you money and help the cause of global warming.

RESOURCES - A summary of the People and Ecosystems report can be found at http://www.wri.org/wri/wr2000. The Earth Day 2000 issue of Time should be on newsstands until May 15. The edition can also be accessed through the Internet at http://www.time.com/time/reports/earthday2000. An interview with William Clay Ford can be found in the March/April edition of E The Environmental Magazine. Wallace Stegner's essay "It All Began with Conservation" is contained in the collection "Marking the Sparrow's Fall" published by Owl Books in 1998. Island Press publishes "The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair" by Denis Hayes.

Michael Jessen is a consultant who owns toenail environmental services. He can be reached by telephone at 229-4621 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site can be found at http://www.toenail.org/.


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