I am working on a post about blossoms, abundant at this time of the year, and an overdue gallery of my landscape photographs, the genre that launched my professional career. Considering that the natural world has given so much to my creative work, I thought it appropriate to reprise a post I wrote 5 years-ago.
Today is Earth Day, and newspapers everywhere are running helpful tips on how to do our bit for Mother Earth:
- Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth
- Turn down the thermostat and wear fleece underwear
- Just say no to plastic bags
- Buy “Power-Smart” appliances
That sort of thing.
All this is very good. We are each, individually and by household, a potential part of the solution. As one of the first humans to view our planet in whole announced famously, small steps add up to giant leaps. And yet, collectives with the power to mitigate dire threats to the survival of our shared home refuse to make the strides necessary to protect us all.
For years, I kept a cartoon on my (non-Power-Smart) fridge that depicted a couple walking down a city street, clutching grocery bags to their chests. Behind a brick wall, giant smokestacks belched black plumes. The caption read “I’m glad we decided to ask for paper bags. It feels good to do our part for the environment.”
At the time of the 4th Earth Day, I had retreated to a redoubt in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia — a hippy commune, if you like — where we practiced, as best we could, living on the land. We were far from self-sufficient, but for a bunch of city-slickers it was an education in just how far from nature and the understanding of its immutable laws we had drifted.
Besides the natural knowledge I absorbed while living that utopian experiment, memorable lessons came from local inhabitants — trappers, prospectors and farmers — as well as one of Canada’s most distinguished scientists, Digby McLaren (1919-2004).
McLaren, whose daughter numbered among our group, visited on several occasions and every hike among the alpine rivers, lakes and forests became an extraordinary living classroom on botany, geology and paleontology (his specialty).
In 1991, having just retired as president of the Canadian Royal Society (1987 to 1990), McLaren co-edited the book Planet Under Stress, which gathered experts from the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities to examine the state of the earth.
In its preface, he wrote that “[w]ith essentially free energy supplied by fossil fuels, we have become the dominant force for change on Earth.”
The problems we have created are “exclusively global, and the solutions must be also.” Without a coordinated effort, he warned, we risk the same fate as the species we have already sent to extinction.
In 1992, he joined 1,700 scientists endorsing the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, a call particularly aimed at leaders in science, business, industry and religion, to urgently address the environmental crisis at hand.
In 2001, as I was working on a series of environmental stories, I called my old mentor to get an update. Were we making progress?
“We are, I’m afraid, on a very steep downward slope toward utter damnation.”
As a bit of a cynic myself, I was still taken back by the graveness of his tone.
He listed three great threats: overpopulation, overuse of dwindling resources, and climate disruption. But I was surprised by his focus on another danger to civilization: the deliberate subverting of science.
“We don’t seem to be able to get the message out, despite the urgency of the situation. This is in no small part due to those who willfully block the message.”
When pressed for culprits, this taciturn scholar pointed first to one of Canada’s most influential “free market” lobby groups, the Fraser Institute. Coincidentally, I had not long before interviewed one of their so-called “environmental economists” for a magazine article on global warming.
To the Fraser Institute, global warming or any other unwanted byproduct of industry is an “externality” to a “healthy economy.” Furthermore, any real or imagined threat to the bottom line is to be attacked as heresy. To this end, they had just published a kind of antithesis to McLaren’s Royal Society anthology, drawing on a who’s who of industry-funded global warming deniers.
McLaren confided that, at 82, he would not likely live to see a positive turn in the battle for the planet. I was left with a deep sadness and ultimate respect for this man who displayed such obvious love and passionate curiosity for the natural world.
On this 40th (now 45th) anniversary of the day meant to remind that every day of our lives is dependant on the life-support systems of Earth, I too search for signs of hope.
I do not believe that technology alone will be our savior and an examination of promising innovations, of which there are many, is beyond the scope of this article. The immediate challenge I see before us is to counter the regressive, irrational forces that would undermine what little progress we have made toward understanding the road to survival.
It was with a sense of urgency that US senator Gaylord Anton Nelson conceived Earth Day in 1970. Eighteen years-later, scientists felt a similar public responsibly when they issued their collective warning.
We can all play our part today in whatever small way. Mine is to pass on the message of a great man who dedicated his life to understanding the elemental forces at work on this magnificent orb and to do his part to impart that knowledge to future generations.