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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

I must begin with a confession. I have always been troubled by Earth Day. As a lifelong activist I understand and appreciate the concept and how it came to be. But over the years I’ve seen it morph from an almost spiritual movement for ecological consciousness and justice into an opportunity for corporations and politicians to tout their empty gestures at “saving the planet” all while they mercilessly plunder it.  Greenwashing has now taken center stage and the effect has often lead to the neutralizing of public outrage. Like so many things corporate, Earth Day has been tinged with a pathological optimism. The dominant message today exudes an all too pervasive “feel goodism” for a situation that is by all accounts truly monstrous, not only for countless other species on the planet, but for our own.

Nearly fifty years ago in April of 1970 people of conscience gathered to address the destruction of the planet. Since that time politicians, corporations, the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpiece think tanks have worked feverishly, not at addressing the crisis, but at polishing their image.  Today their lavish conferences and consortiums generally serve as window dressing and are a distraction to our collective, growing existential angst, as each passing year gives us a terrifying glimpse into a fast approaching future for our planet, one rife with super storms, floods, mega-droughts, crop failures and species demise.

Within the last decade alone there have been monumental shifts in climate models leaving even the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shocked and bewildered. Indeed, record breaking temperature extremes have become a defining norm of the 21st century, with an ice free Arctic summer now on the horizon. It is becoming apparent that things are far dire than anyone had previously anticipated. We are beginning to see the first stirrings of climate chaos; and it is set against the ominous backdrop of an already ravaged biosphere.

This past year we witnessed an American west coast at once bathed in fire and then awash in mud. We saw the Amazon rain forest, the vaunted “lungs of the planet,” belch out smoke as it reeled from over 200,000 fires. We stood aghast at the hurricanes which decimated the Caribbean and the floods that killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn and winter, from China to India and Nepal, to Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Other revelations were equally staggering. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide. Bird populations are being decimated by loss of food sources, and marine plastic pollution is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to warming waters and ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized area” every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is required.

To be sure, history has demonstrated that most politicians will never face unpleasant realities until they are literally upon us. Our current climate and ecological crisis is no different. As this century unfolds cities and towns will likely be lost to rising seas as governments eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Entire regions may become uninhabitable from deforestation, pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will undoubtedly haunt billions of people, in fact they already plague millions today. Mass migration could easily make today’s issue appearnegligible and would put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities. Rich, biodiverse areas could become graveyards. Those in power would undoubtedly answer the concomitant unrest in more Orwellian doublespeak and with insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

Here is where people of conscience, like those untarnished souls at the first Earth Day nearly fifty years ago, must be unabashedly truthful about our monstrous and collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless subjugation and exploitation of the global south. And that there will be no substantive actions taken by our political and corporate leaders to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. After all, according to their economic ethos they have no vested interest since they profit handsomely from this global arrangement to begin with. They have demonstrated that they are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

Despite all this we still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with dignity and humanity. We possess the moral authority to oppose the further defilement of the water and the soil, the very source and sustenance of our lives and that of countless other species. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. Earth Day should no longer be taken simply as a gentle, yet trite, reminder to recycle, or use canvas shopping bags, or cycle to work one day out of the week. It should no longer be diminished to “lifestyle choices” that let corporations and governments off the hook. It must quite literally be transformed into a rallying cry for the life of the biosphere. Because anything short of that is merely whistling past the graveyard.