Earth Day is this Thursday, April 22. The annual environmental awareness event was first held on April 22, 1970, with more than 20 million pouring onto streets in the US in protest. Since 1990, it’s been an international event coordinated by Earth Day Network (earthday.org). The theme this year is Restore Our Earth and features five primary programs: The Canopy Project, Food and Environment, Climate Literacy, the Global Earth Challenge, and The Great Global CleanUp. Leading up to the day, three separate parallel climate action summits will focus on climate literacy, environmental justice, and youth-led climate-focused issues.
US President Joe Biden is convening a global climate summit on Earth Day 2021, where the US will formally accelerate its emissions reduction goals for 2030. The US is working with the major economic powers to bolster carbon emission targets; global climate envoy John Kerry has had success with Japan, South Korea and Canada, but deals with Brazil, India and China are thorny. 40 world leaders have been invited.
The Earth Day Network set 10 climate proposals for the new Biden administration and they suggest the terrifying scope of the problem. Besides rejoining the Paris Climate Accord (which Biden did as soon as he was inaugurated President), the list includes: reversing the tide of plastic pollution, making climate education compulsory and science-based, reverse more than 100 Trump administration environmental rollbacks, create a clean workforce by establishing a Climate Conservation Corps, reforest the United States for carbon sequestration and habitat protection, ensure clean air for marginalized communities through zero-emission vehicles and fight for environmental justice. (There’s even a request to increase the whale population; if they can rebound to pre-commercial whaling size, they could sequester some 160,000 tons of carbon a year.)
A tall order, but they suggest a psychological tipping point has been reached ahead of the climate tipping point not that far ahead. People are ready to act.
That willingness is apparent in Paul Greenberg and Carl Safina’s op-ed in the April 13, 2021 New York Times, “We Don’t Need More Life-Crushing Steel and Concrete”. Responding to the announcement of Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the write, “Nature has its own infrastructure. What nature needs is for us to get out of its way and let its systems function in the manner that billions of years of evolution enabled them to do. “
Nearly 4 million miles of roads highways thread the United States, resulting in the deaths of a million vertebrate animals every day. “So before we rush out to fix our crumbling roads,” they write, “perhaps we should let a lot of them crumble. Let’s favor only those roads that carry significant amounts of public bus transportation or are essential links to getting workers to and from their places of employment. Let’s have more electric vehicles but also focus on making roads work better. And let’s build transport that more feasibly, desirably and efficiently carries electric vehicles.”
Greenberg and Safina also suggest using up the built environment before tearing down for new construction; empty shopping malls, for example, could be converted to solar farms. “A forward-looking plan must heal what is broken before breaking more ground,” they write.
Other ideas for natural infrastructure include distributing the power (utilities are terrified of losing central control of our energy needs, but home rooftop solar is the way to go) and broadening public transportation while widening wildlife corridors.
Most radically sensible they propose an infrastructure based on abundance “The Endangered Species Act sets a floor to protect at-risk plants and animals rather than a goal for them to flourish,” they write. “…Since (its) passage, extinctions have indeed been slowed, but wild bird populations have declined by a third overall in the past half-century, and the numbers of insects that pollinate our crops, gardens and wild landscapes are plummeting. As pressures on wildlife rise, we need to protect populations before they decline. We need an Abundant Species Act, whose goal is ensuring that wildlife on the land and in the waters and skies are as visible as roads, rails or wind turbines.”
They conclude, “What is the point of a country with an infrastructure that seamlessly, silently and electrically flits us from place to place when those places have nothing left for us to see? The infrastructure of America — the guts, if you will — is a certain wildness that is essential to who we are. Without those guts, a new American infrastructure will be an empty package.”
Seems like everywhere we turn, astonishing levels of work are needed. The good news is that the willingness seems so much larger at hand.
And where much energy has been spent trying to dislocate denial of the crisis, now the battle is equally against own defeatisim and despair. Michael Mann makes that point in his new book The New Climate War. In a recent interview about the book in The Guardian he said, “doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. Inactivists know that if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up.
“What is so pernicious about this,” he continues, “is that it seeks to weaponise environmental progressives who would otherwise be on the frontline demanding change. These are folk of good intentions and good will, but they become disillusioned or depressed and they fall into despair. But ‘too late’ narratives are invariably based on a misunderstanding of science.”
David Montgomery looks at hope in the face of climate despair in an April 12 essay in the Washington Post Magazine. Climate change had hit him in a real way; a recent mudslide in California (caused by the wildfire season) killed his brother and niece. The reality of grief underscored the reality of climate change. “My personal losses have made me examine what hope I have for every other living thing. After all, isn’t hope essential? It gives us a sense of agency against vast forces and suggests the possibility that our actions matter. Its opposite — despair — is paralyzing.”
He consults many voices in the environmental movement “who come at hope from different angles” — climate scientists, natural philosophers, artists, activitists — and each had a slightly different take. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye had been feeding mourning doves who were huddled against the freak cold snap recently in Texas. For her, hope was doing what was needed right in front of her. Marine scientist Nancy Knowlton is part of the Ocean Optimism movement, looking for “glimmers of resililence” in the tide of pessimistic news about the state of oceans. “It’s not even a complete and accurate picture to simply talk about all the bad news,” Knowlton says. And according to advocate Terry Tempest Williams, “it’s not so much about hope, but knowing where hope dwells.” In her 2019 essay collection Erosion Williams writes, “If we are to flourish as a species, an erosion of belief will be necessary, that says we are not the center of the universe but a dynamic part of an expanding and contracting future that celebrates and collaborates with uncertainty.” Hope cannot be unvarnished.
When I set out in search of hope to conquer my despair at our seeming inability to head off a climate catastrophe, I’d had it backward. True hope is not an opiate whose purpose is to make us feel better. And despair is not something to be explained away by science, or dulled by communing with nature, or vanquished by action. Hope takes root in suffering and sadness. To move beyond despair, we need to fully feel it, admit it to a place deep inside, and then it becomes our superpower. So if you feel defeated or disheartened about the climate, I say: Good. Embrace your despair. And then step into the hope of your next move.
For this week’s challenge, celebrate Earth Day with local affirmations of restoring our Earth.
Let’s show Earth Day the earthweal way, where the grief is real and so too the hope.
PS: May Day is coming next week, and Sarah Connor has prepared a challenge that will get us celebrating the deep Earth. Don’t miss it.
What we have been becomes
The country where we are,
Spring goes, summer comes,
And in the heat, as one year
Or a thousand years before,
The fields and woods prepare
The burden of their seed
Out of time’s wound, the old
Richness of the fall. Their deed
Is renewal. In the household
Of the woods the past
Is always healing in the light,
The high shiftings of the air.
It stands upon its yield
And thrives. Nothing is lost.
What yields, though in despair,
Opens and rises in the night.
Love binds us to this term
With its yes that is crying
In our marrow to confirm
Life that only lives by dying.
Lovers live by the moon
Whose dark and light are one,
Changing without rest.
The root struts from the seed
In the earth’s dark — harvest
And feast at the of sleep.
Darkened, we are carried
Out of need, deep
In the country we have married.