By Donella Meadows, adjunct professor at Dartmouth College.

If, in the thirty Earth Day celebrations we have held since 1970, the human
population and economy have become any more respectful of the Earth, the
Earth hasn't noticed.  The planet is not impressed by fancy speeches.
Leonardo DiCaprio interviewing Bill Clinton about global warming is not an
Earth-shaking event.  The Earth has no way of registering good intentions
or future inventions or high hopes.  It doesn't even pay attention to
dollars, which are, from a planet's point of view, just a charming human
invention. Planets measure only physical things-energy and materials and
their flows into and out of the changing populations of living creatures.

What the Earth sees is that on the first Earth Day in 1970 there were 3.7
billion of those hyperactive critters called humans, and now there are over
6 billion.  Back in 1970 those humans drew from the Earth's crust 46
million barrels of oil every day  now they draw 78 million.  Natural gas
extraction has nearly tripled in thirty years, from 34 trillion cubic feet
per year to 95 trillion. We mined 2.2 billion metric tons in 1970; this
year we'll mine about 3.8 billion. The planet feels this fossil fuel use in
many ways, as the fuels are extracted (and spilled) and shipped (and
spilled) and refined (generating toxics) and burned into numerous
pollutants, including carbon dioxide, which traps outgoing energy and warms
things up.  Despite global conferences and brave promises, 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.

You would think that an unimaginably huge thing like a planet would not
notice the one degree (Fahrenheit) warming it has experienced since
1970.  But on the scale of a whole planet, one degree is a big deal,
especially since it is not spread evenly.  The poles have warmed more than
the equator[**], the winters more than the summers, the nights more than the
days. That means that temperature DIFFERENCES from one place to another
have been changing much more than the average temperature has changed.
Temperature differences are what make winds blow, rains rain, ocean
currents flow.

 [**UPDATE: just this August, 2000, scientists have discovered a mile-long
 lake--i.e. liquid, not frozen--at the North Pole, the first in history!]**

All creatures, including humans, are exquisitely attuned to the weather.
All creatures, including us, are noticing weather weirdness and trying to
adjust, by moving, by fruiting earlier or migrating later, by building up
whatever protections are possible against flood and drought.  The Earth is
reacting to weather changes too, shrinking glaciers, splitting off
nation-sized chunks of Antarctic ice sheet, enhancing the cycles we call El
Nino and La Nina.

"Earth Day, Shmearth Day," the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts.
"Are you folks ever going to take me seriously?"  Since the first Earth Day
our global vehicle population has swelled from 246 to 730 million.  Air
traffic has gone up by a factor of six. The rate at which we grind up trees
to make paper has doubled (to 200 million metric tons per year). We coax
from the soil, with the help of strange chemicals, 2.25 times as much
wheat, 2.5 times as much corn, 2.2 times as much rice, almost twice as much
sugar, almost four times as many soybeans as we did thirty years ago. We
pull from the oceans almost twice as much fish.

With the fish we can see clearly how the planet behaves, when we push it
too far. It does not feel sorry for us; it just follows its own
rules.  Fish become harder and harder to find.  If they are caught before
they're old enough to reproduce, if their nursery habitat is destroyed, if
we scoop up not only the cod, but the capelin upon which the cod feeds, the
fish may never come back. The Earth does not care that we didn't mean it,
that we promise not to do it again, that we make nice gestures every Earth

We have among us die-hard optimists who will berate me for not reporting
the good news since the last Earth Day.  There is plenty of it, but it is
mostly measured in human terms, not Earth terms.  Average human life
expectancy has risen since 1970 from 58 to 66 years. Gross world product
has more than doubled, from 16 to 39 trillion dollars. Recycling has
increased, but so has trash generation, so the Earth receives more garbage
than ever before. Wind and solar power generation have soared, but so have
coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear generation.

In human terms there has been breathtaking progress. In 1970 there weren't
any cell phones or video players.  There was no Internet; there were no
dot-coms. Nor was anyone infected with AIDS, of course, nor did we have to
worry about genetic engineering. Global spending on advertising was only
one-third of what it is now (in inflation-corrected dollars).  Third-World
debt was one-eighth of what it is now. Whether you call any of that
progress, it is all beneath the notice of the Earth. 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 half its wetlands have been filled or
drained, and that, despite Earth Day, all these trends are accelerating.
Earth Day is beginning to remind me of Mother's Day, a commercial occasion
upon which you buy flowers for the person who, every other day of the year,
cleans up after you. Guilt-assuaging. Trivializing. Actually dangerous. All
mothers have their breaking points. Mother Earth does not soften hers with
patience or forgiveness or sentimentality.

And now, for a more up-to-date assessment of our Environmental
Future... Click Here

Return to the PERS 2450 Front Page.

Return to the Bergstrom Home Page.