Earth Day 2020 and Global Solidarity
David P. Turner / April 19, 2020
Earth Day in 2020 is the 50th Anniversary for this annual gathering of our global tribe. Historically, it has been an opportunity to note declines in environmental quality and to envision a sustainable relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system.
This year, in addition to the usual concerns about issues like climate change and ocean acidification, Earth Day is accompanied by concern about the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A glance at the geographic distribution of this virus is the latest reminder that interactions with the biosphere, in this case the microbial component, can link all humans in powerful ways.
Environmental issues that were on the front burner when Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated Earth Day in 1970 were mostly local − polluted rivers, polluted air, and degraded land cover. These issues were addressed to a significant degree in the U.S. by passage of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These were national level successes inspired by environmental activism.
Awareness of global environmental change in 1970 was only dimly informed by geophysical observations such as the slow rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. But by the 1980s, climate scientists began a drumbeat of testimony to governments and the media that the environmental pollution issue extended to the global scale and might eventually threaten all of humanity.
The United Nations has functioned as a forum for international deliberations about global environmental change issues, and the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 hinted at the possibilities for global solidarity with respect to the environment.
To help matters, economic globalization in the 1990s began uniting the world in new ways. Huge flows in goods and services across borders fueled a truly global economy. The level of communication required to support the global economy was based on the rapidly evolving Internet. It provided the foundation for a global transportation/telecommunications infrastructure that now envelops the planet.
A political backlash to economic and cultural globalization has recently brought to power leaders like Donald Trump (U.S.) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil). Their inclination is much more towards nationalism than towards global solidarity on environmental issues.
However, humanity is indeed united – in fear of climate change and coronavirus pandemics if nothing else.
Each year, the growing incidence of extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic climate change negatively impinges on the quality of life of a vast number of people around the planet. This year, billions of us are locked down in one form or another to slow the spread of a virus that likely emerged from trafficking in wild animals. In a mythopoetic sense, it is as if Earth was responding to the depredations imposed upon it by our species.
Philosopher Isabelle Stengers refers to the “intrusion” of Gaia (the Earth system) upon human history. The message from Gaia is that she is no longer just a background for the infinite expansion of the human enterprise (the technosphere).
Humanity can reply to Gaia with ad hoc measures like building sea walls for protection from sea level rise. Or we can get organized and develop a framework for global environmental governance.
There are many impediments to becoming a global “we” that will work collectively on global environmental change issues. Nevertheless, the incentives for doing so are arriving hard and fast. The diminishment of the wild animal trade in China in response to COVID-19, and the unintended reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally associated with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, signal that radical change is possible.
Fitting testaments to an emerging global solidarity about environmental issues would be eradication of commercial exploitation of wild land animals everywhere in the world, and stronger national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to current obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Both initiatives of course face strong cultural and political headwinds. But Earth Day, as one of the largest recurring secular celebrations in the world, is an opportunity to think anew.
One World (Not Three), The Police