Over the millennia of human evolution, life on earth was tough for our awkward bipedal ancestors. They weren’t quick, nimble or strong, but their evolving brains allowed them to work together and profit from gradual advances like the ability to use fire, the wheel, spear tips and cutting tools, and primitive agriculture including the domestication of animals.
Then, suddenly, technological progress sped up. The Industrial Revolution, starting around 1750, brought untold benefits to humanity. The factory model, in partnership with science and technology, created a much easier world for many human beings. Working six days a week in sooty factories – children included – was still preferable to life on the farm, where a single crop failure could lead to sickness and death.
Fast forward to now.
Case study: over the last few decades India’s vultures were inadvertently killed off by anti-inflammatory drugs injected in cattle. They no longer clean up the flesh of dead animals scattered in the countryside. This led to an explosion of wild dogs and dog bites that cause rabies infections, killing tens of thousands of people and costing the Indian economy $30 billion US.
There are a lot of lessons in this story, for in Nature everything is connected. The story comes from the book What has nature ever done for us: how money really does grow on trees, by Tony Juniper (Synergetic Press). The appropriately named Juniper is an ornithologist and free-range environmentalist who has held many senior positions, including first president of the Society for the Environment.
His book is a catalog of some of the infinite benefits the earth and its biosphere provide to human beings and other living animals and plants. He explores the vast system of complex feedback loops that were billions of years in the making.
Then, only a few decades ago, the ability of the planet to sustain its life-giving qualities tipped into the negative. The ecological and habitat destruction that came with the modern economy led to an immense decrease in the biodiversity of life on earth. Many of the new technologies became dependent on the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and accelerated global warming.
Indeed, since as early as the 1850s, scientific models have predicted that the industrial economy as it currently operates will lead to environmental degradation, resource scarcity, mass hunger, and even social collapse, not the mention the melting sea ice and rising sea levels that are progressing at faster rates than even the most pessimistic climate models of a few decades ago.
Let’s pause at 1975, the year Vietcong forces entered Saigon, signaling the end of the Vietnam War. As Juniper puts it, the 1970s were the decade when rising human demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded what nature could supply so the ecosystems could renew themselves naturally. In 1975, “we crossed the threshold of living from dividends to eating so-called natural capital,” he writes.
The world population was heading towards 4 billion people at that time. In 2011, it was 7 billion people and it’s close to 8 billion today. By 2057, it’s expected to be 10 billion people.
The protests of the 1960s also saw the birth of the modern environmental movement. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. It was supported by key scientists and politicians, and the labor movement, and quickly spread around the world. The goal was to raise awareness so that governments, industry, not-for-profits, and indeed all human organizations would shift their focus to reduce pollution and advance sustainable practices before it is too late.
Today Earthday.org is the umbrella organization coordinating this movement. “Invest in our planet,” is this year’s motto. The main goal is to counter the influence of the fossil fuels industry, which still powers the modern economy as it pretends drawbacks like habitat destruction and global warning are vastly overstated.
In a phrase, our society is addicted to cheap energy and extreme waste. The cycles of destruction are too obvious to ignore. Deforestation itself is the number 2 cause of global warming. Loss of biodiversity alone hurts the economy, as well as water quality, and reduces natural pest control and even food security.
THREAT TO GLOBAL HEALTH
Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and health professionals worldwide are already responding to the health harms caused by this unfolding crisis, says the World Health Organization:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Past emissions have already made a certain level of global temperature rise and other changes to the climate inevitable.
While no one is safe from these risks, the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are the people who contribute least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it – people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities.
Roughly 24% of all global deaths are linked to the environment – a healthier environment could prevent these deaths. The COVID-19 pandemic is a further reminder of the delicate relationship between people and our planet. Our political, social and commercial decisions are driving the climate and health crisis.
The climate crisis threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction, and to further widen existing health inequalities between and within populations.
It severely jeopardizes the realization of universal health coverage (UHC) in various ways – including by compounding the existing burden of disease and by exacerbating existing barriers to accessing health services, often at the times when they are most needed. Over 930 million people – around 12% of the world’s population – spend at least 10% of their household budget to pay for health care.
With the poorest people largely uninsured, health shocks and stresses already currently push around 100 million people into poverty every year, with the impacts of climate change worsening this trend. – World Health Organization (WHO)
WHAT DO PEOPLE WANT?
What humans do and do not do to mitigate the environmental crisis has a lot to do with public opinion. On the first Earth Day 52 years ago, the press took the environmental threat seriously, as Columbia Journalism Review reports. “Act or die,” was how CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite summarized the message of that first Earth Day.
In “Earth Day and the media’s point of view,” Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope report that CBS News produced a special titled “Earth Day, A Question of Survival,” which opened its flagship evening broadcast showing biologist Barry Commoner telling a crowd, “This planet is threatened with destruction…. We are in a crisis of survival.”
Anchorman Walter Cronkite then reiterated the theme, declaring this a “unique day in American history, dedicated to mankind seeking its own survival.”
“At the time, network television was approaching the height of its power to influence public opinion,” note the authors. “US President Richard Nixon responded to the outpouring of public sentiment on Earth Day—some accounts estimated that 20 million people took part. This convinced Nixon that his re-election chances in 1972 required taking the environment issue away from his opponents. Before long, Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other legislation that to this day rank among the strongest environmental laws on earth.”
Yet even today, the fossils fuels sector casts doubts on environmental science using the playbook developed by Big Tobacco decades ago when the link between smoking and cancer was proven by a host of studies.
The techniques are working. A large segment of the population, including politicians supported by the fossil fuels sector and right-wing media, prefer to look the other way. Huge profitable industries are at stake – and as a society we love our SUVs and the call of the open road, or at least the trip to the mall to pick up what we forgot yesterday.
In some ways we are going backwards — the progress of recent decades is slipping. While the renewable energy sector is growing by the day, highways are still crawling with large gas-guzzling vehicles, coal is still king in many countries, and fossil fuels make up about 80% of global energy production.
Tony Juniper puts the issue in an evolutionary perspective: $6.6 trillion annual global environmental damage is caused by human activities — 11% of world GDP. These costs are paid not by the polluters and destroyers such as the producers of greenhouse gases, including methane from the livestock industry, and the fishing and mining industries. Rather, they are paid by society at large — and by the earth’s biosphere.
The high-consumption lifestyles of the developed world, the so-called Global North, are a big part of the problem. As this population is joined by billions of people, then between three and five planets’ worth of capacity will be needed by the 2050s. “In ecological terms, the earth is shrinking as systems on land and sea are disrupted depleted and degraded.”
At the deepest level, the issue is hidden between our ears – in the human psychology “that evolved in the hunter-gatherer communities in the testing conditions of the Pleistocene — settings that favor short-term priorities and behavior.”
“We were adapted to avoid danger and exploit opportunities in the here and now and our brains remain with the same basic wiring today,” Juniper writes. “Our defaults required that we protect family members and achieve comfort and some level of security through juggling choices and options, mostly in a short-term context. And we are social animals wired to value status and all that comes with it.”
Overfishing, soil damage, taking too much freshwater, the clearance of forests, hunting of other animals, and release of pollution are generally justified by the individuals involved, he writes, because even though the economic cost to society may be high, the benefits in the here and now are judged advantageous in the short term.
So, it’s up to us to master the fixation of the short term that was crucial for our primitive ancestors, the subsistence hunters and gathers who were never too far from death by injury, disease or starvation. Their choices were simple and when they acted, they usually had to act fast. Ours is a different world. It’s complex and the connections between causes and effects can be remote and hard to discern.
Still, we have the science, the policies, the communications, and the technologies to reverse course. In the words of the historian Yuval Noah Harari, for the first time we are all one world. No excuses. As Earth Day reminds us, its time to think about where we want to go and how we plan to get there.
April 22, 1970: first Earth Day in the United States. In July of 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was established by special executive order to regulate and enforce national pollution legislation. Earth Day also led to the passage of the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
April 22, 2016: Earth Day. World leaders from 175 nations broke a record by signing the Paris Agreement at the United Nations — the most significant climate accord in the history of the climate movement
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World Health Organization
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Discover more: If you enjoyed this story, please visit this story about sustainable tourism.