April 22, 2012 was the 42nd Earth Day, an event that passed with limited notice by most Americans and the news media. For all but a few of us who work in the field, the environment is no longer a “top 10” issue. Yet objectively, the planet is in materially worse shape than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. As a species, we are collectively destroying the earth’s natural systems, plundering its resources and squandering its natural capital at an accelerating and unsustainable rate. The “Tragedy of the Commons” that Garrett Hardin wrote so eloquently about in advance of the first Earth Day is rapidly unfolding just as he predicted.
On a global scale, the earth’s ecosystems are under siege. With a human population of 7 billion, and headed for at least 10 billion fairly soon, growing greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change, increasing regional water scarcity, and growing global competition for dwindling resources, the trends are to put it mildly, not looking good. It has been estimated that we are now consuming the planet’s resources, emitting pollutants and generating waste at about 1.5 times the earth’s carrying capacity. The “externalities” of our ever growing global economy are overwhelming the earth’s ability to assimilate them.
[For a fairly comprehensive and sobering account of the causes, effects and trends of global environmental degradation, I recommend Paul Gilding’s recent book, The Great Disruption.]
If we continue on our present course, our environmental, social and economic systems appear to be headed for collapse, or at least some very rough sledding with unacceptably high (and of course, inequitably distributed) human and ecological casualties. Catastrophic and irreversible climate change is a growing possibility, if not a probability, without fundamental changes in how we use energy. After more than 40 years of effort, and a proliferation of “green” policies and initiatives, we are clearly losing the war of environmental protection and conservation. This is particularly disquieting for those of us who work in the environmental profession, supposedly understand these issues, and presumably care about the real world outcomes.
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