Saving the Earth, 2009
On this day in 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, a book I co-wrote with my friend Will Steger – “Saving the Earth, A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Action” – was published to good review. Its focus was on the causes and effects of eleven environmental problems then facing the world, with an emphasis on solutions. Every once in a while I revisit the book, to see how we’re doing globally on all of those issues.
On global warming, predictions are dire today. We did not predict how much ice would have already been lost at the Poles. In the book I quoted Dr. Stephen Schneider (who I just re-met in San Francisco at the Institute for the Golden Gate a couple weeks ago) suggesting, “We are looking into a very murky crystal ball.” Today it is less murky; we have many more clues about how quickly things are heating up.
Ozone depletion is one environmental problem that has actually been slightly mitigated since the book was published, thanks to constant monitoring of the ozone hole above the Southern Ocean and an international ban on ozone-destroying fluorocarbons; smog, or air pollution, has improved in some urban areas but grown far worse in others, especially as industrial Asia has boomed. Acid rain continues, but with major industries called on to build cleaner stacks and allowances made for emission bartering, there have been improvements.
The subject of what we were dong to the planet’s rain forest was a hot topic 20 years ago; today the threat is the same and we continue to lose vast amounts of forest each year. The contribution of forests as carbon-dioxide vacuums is as important today as it was then. In regard to garbage, the emphasis twenty years ago was largely on the fact that landfills were overflowing; hazardous waste – whether from home products or manufacturing leftovers – continues to be a health hazard around the world.
When it came to water pollution, we were right on: I wrote then about one of the themes of my work today – protecting our one ocean – specifically the weight of plastic already floating near its surface and the harm being done to its marine life. As for freshwater, in the U.S. and elsewhere there have actually been a variety of environmental success stories, particularly in regard to manufacturers dumping waste and chemicals directly into rivers and lakes. Energy consumption was a major worry then and we called for the obvious need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The world obviously didn’t listen; demand and usage has only gone up, up, up since 1990. Though there is a renewed emphasis on alternatives these days, there is still little real money being spent on development; even the Obama administration is having a hard time admitting there is no such thing as “clean coal.” Overpopulation was the final chapter in the book and spoke to the discrepancy between the impacts on the planet of a baby born in the U.S. versus Bangladesh – the American would during his/her lifetime use one hundred times more resources and energy as his/her Bangladeshian counterpart. That has not changed.
An emphasis of the book was on what the individual could do to reduce what we have in the past two decades come to know as his/her footprint. On only a couple environmental fronts have we made significant steps forward (ozone depletion, freshwater pollution). One good thing to grow in the past twenty years is a boom in green consciousness. I wish I could say books like ours have contributed to that greening; perhaps they have, it’s a hard thing to measure. Personally it’s a good exercise for me to revisit “Saving the Earth” every year to see just how we’re doing and to ponder an updated version on some future anniversary. Though one most likely available only for the Kindle, to save on trees.