Let’s rename Earth Day

Affection for our planet is misdirected and unrequited. We need to focus on saving ourselves.

earth-day.jpgIn 2008, I wrote a piece for Salon about renaming ‘Earth’ Day. It was supposed to be mostly humorous. Or mostly serious. Anyway, the subject of renaming Earth Day seems more relevant than ever because this is the 40th anniversary.

In a 2009 interview last year, our Nobel-prize winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, said:

I would say that from here on in, every day has to be Earth Day.

Well, duh! Heck, we have a whole day just for the trees — and we haven’t finished them offyet. So if every day is Earth Day, than April 22 definitely needs a new name. So I’m updating the column, with yet another idea at the end, at least for climate science advocates:

I don’t worry about the earth. I’m pretty certain the earth will survive the worst we can do to it. I’m very certain the earth doesn’t worry about us. I’m not alone. People got more riled up when scientists removed Pluto from the list of planets than they do when scientists warn that our greenhouse gas emissions are poised to turn the earth into a barely habitable planet.

Arguably, concern over the earth is elitist, something people can afford to spend their time on when every other need is met. But elitism is out these days. We need a new way to make people care about the nasty things we’re doing with our cars and power plants. At the very least, we need a new name.

How about Nature Day or Environment Day? Personally, I am not an environmentalist. I don’t think I’m ever going to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I wouldn’t drill for oil there. But that’s not out of concern for the caribou but for my daughter and the planet’s next several billion people, who will need to see oil use cut sharply to avoid the worst of climate change.

I used to worry about the polar bear. But then some naturalists told me that once human-caused global warming has completely eliminated their feeding habitat “” the polar ice, probably by 2020, possibly sooner “” polar bears will just go about the business of coming inland and attacking humans and eating our food and maybe even us. That seems only fair, no?

I am a cat lover, but you can’t really worry about them. Cats are survivors. Remember the movie “Alien”? For better or worse, cats have hitched their future to humans, and while we seem poised to wipe out half the species on the planet, cats will do just fine.

Apparently there are some plankton that thrive on an acidic environment, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to wipe out all life in the ocean, just most of it. Sure, losing Pacific salmon is going to be a bummer, but I eat Pacific salmon several times a week, so I don’t see how I’m in a position to march on the nation’s capital to protest their extinction. I won’t eat farm-raised salmon, though, since my doctor says I get enough antibiotics from the tap water.

If thousands of inedible species can’t adapt to our monomaniacal quest to return every last bit of fossil carbon back into the atmosphere, why should we care? Other species will do just fine, like kudzu, cactus, cockroaches, rats, scorpions, the bark beetle, Anopheles mosquitoes and the malaria parasites they harbor. Who are we to pick favorites?

I didn’t hear any complaining after the dinosaurs and many other species were wiped out when an asteroid hit the earth and made room for mammals and, eventually, us. If God hadn’t wanted us to dominate all living creatures on the earth, he wouldn’t have sent that asteroid in the first place, and he wouldn’t have turned the dead plants and animals into fossil carbon that could power our Industrial Revolution, destroy the climate, and ultimately kill more plants and animals.

All of these phrases create the misleading perception that the cause so many of us are fighting for “” sharp cuts in greenhouse gases “” is based on the desire to preserve something inhuman or abstract or far away. But I have to say that all the environmentalists I know “” and I tend to hang out with the climate crowd “” care about stopping global warming because of its impact on humans, even if they aren’t so good at articulating that perspective. I’m with them.

The reason that many environmentalists fight to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the polar bears is not because they are sure that losing those things would cause the universe to become unhinged, but because they realize that humanity isn’t smart enough to know which things are linchpins for the entire ecosystem and which are not. What is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The 100th species we wipe out? The 1,000th? For many, the safest and wisest thing to do is to try to avoid the risks entirely.

This is where I part company with many environmentalists. With 6.5 billion people going to 9 billion, much of the environment is unsavable. But if we warm significantly more than 3.5°F from pre-industrial levels “” and especially if we warm more than 7°F, as would be all but inevitable if we keep on our current emissions path for much longer “” then the environment and climate that made modern human civilization possible will be ruined, probably for hundreds of years (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe). And that means misery for many if not most of the next 10 to 20 billion people to walk the planet.

So I think the world should be more into conserving the stuff that we can’t live without. In that regard I am a conservative person. Unfortunately, Conservative Day would, I think, draw the wrong crowds.

The problem with Earth Day is it asks us to save too much ground. We need to focus. The two parts of the planet worth fighting to preserve are the soils and the glaciers.

Two years ago, Science magazine published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” “” levels of soil aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas and Oklahoma to California. The Hadley Center, the U.K.’s official center for climate change research, found that “areas affected by severe drought could see a five-fold increase from 8% to 40%.” On our current emissions path, most of the South and Southwest ultimately experience twice as much loss of soil moisture as was seen during the Dust Bowl.

Also, locked away in the frozen soil of the tundra or permafrost is more carbon than the atmosphere contains today (see Tundra, Part 1). On our current path, most of the top 10 feet of the permafrost will be lost this century “” so much for being “perma” “” and that amplifying carbon-cycle feedback will all but ensure that today’s worst-case scenarios for global warming become the best-case scenarios (see Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return). We must save the tundra. Perhaps it should be small “e” earth Day, which is to say, Soil Day. On the other hand, most of the public enthusiasm in the 1980s for saving the rain forests fizzled, and they are almost as important as the soil, so maybe not Soil Day.

As for glaciers, when they disappear, sea levels rise, perhaps as much as two inches a year by century’s end (see “Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100” and here). If we warm even 3°C from pre-industrial levels, we will return the planet to a time when sea levels were ultimately 100 feet higher (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher “” “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm.”). The first five feet of sea level rise, which seems increasingly likely to occur this century on our current emissions path, would displace more than 100 million people. That would be the equivalent of 200 Katrinas. Since my brother lost his home in Katrina, I don’t consider this to be an abstract issue.

Equally important, the inland glaciers provide fresh water sources for more than a billion people. But on our current path, they will be gone by century’s end.

So where is everyone going to live? Hundreds of millions will flee the new deserts, but they can’t go to the coasts; indeed, hundreds of millions of other people will be moving inland. But many of the world’s great rivers will be drying up at the same time, forcing massive conflict among yet another group of hundreds of millions of people. The word rival, after all, comes from “people who share the same river.” Sure, desalination is possible, but that’s expensive and uses a lot of energy, which means we’ll need even more carbon-free power.

Perhaps Earth Day should be Water Day, since the worst global warming impacts are going to be about water “” too much in some places, too little in other places, too acidified in the oceans for most life. But even soil and water are themselves only important because they sustain life. We could do Pro-Life Day, but that term is already taken, and again it would probably draw the wrong crowd.

We could call it Homo sapiens Day. Technically, we are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. Isn’t it great being the only species that gets to name all the species, so we can call ourselves “wise” twice! But given how we have been destroying the planet’s livability, I think at the very least we should drop one of the sapiens. And, perhaps provisionally, we should put the other one in quotes, so we are Homo “sapiens,” at least until we see whether we are smart enough to save ourselves from self-destruction.

What the day “” indeed, the whole year “” should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“). Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can’t preserve ourselves if we don’t preserve a livable climate, and we can’t preserve a livable climate if we don’t preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.

We have fiddled like Nero for far too long to save the whole earth or all of its species. Now we need a World War II scale effort just to cut our losses and save what matters most. So let’s call it Triage Day. And if worse comes to worst — yes, if worse comes to worst — at least future generations won’t have to change the name again.

As a penultimate thought, I suspect that many environmentalists and climate science advocates will have their own, private name: “I told you so” Day. Not as a universal as “Triage Day,” I admit, but it has a Cassandra-like catchiness, no?

Finally, perhaps we should call it “science day.”  We don’t have a day dedicated to celebrating science, and don’t we deserve one whole day free from the non-stop disinformation of the anti-science crowd?

As always, I’m open to better ideas….

Affection for our planet is misdirected and unrequited. We need to focus on saving ourselves.

41 Responses to Let’s rename Earth Day

  1. Mark says:

    You could start a Steven Colbert-like show on the environment. Your dry humor is first rate. It certainly seems like the first part of your post could have been written for Colbert. And it just might turn out to be quite effective.

    “Other species will do just fine, like kudzu, cactus, cockroaches, rats, scorpions, the bark beetle, Anopheles mosquitoes and the malaria parasites they harbor. Who are we to pick favorites?”

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Agreed, “Triage Day”. Soon we are going to have to make some very hard choices on who can be saved and who has no chance. Assuming the thin veneer of civilisation can hold.

  3. Nick K says:

    How about “Divert Destruction Day” or “Save Civilization Day”

  4. Fred Teal says:

    Maybe just “Save our home” day.

  5. Wit's End says:

    “As for glaciers, when they disappear, sea levels rise, perhaps as much as two inches a year by century’s end…”

    this is likely wildly optimistic:

    and although I of course agree with your general sentiments and appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humor of this post, I do know some bats, bees, trees, birds, and frogs who almost certainly take issue with your assertion that

    “…humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering…”

    and I do like the designation “Earth Day.” We are nothing without the Earth since we are far from the capability to colonize another planet. I even think we should all be chanting…”All We Are Saying…is Give Earth a Chance…”

  6. neoterrestrial says:

    I agree with Mark. Your humour has teeth, and I would venture it is helpful for communication. It’s easier to absorb doom and gloom when one is chuckling, and as the struggle for a habitable environment becomes more and more like the plot of a Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut novel, it is probably even more appropriate.

  7. Dan B says:

    Nick @ 3;

    How about “Cave Civilization Day”.

    You could pronounce both ‘C’s like the second when a Pollyanna mood strikes.

  8. Fred Teal says:

    Actually the potential losses are so great that its difficult to consider just how severe things might be.

    I find it hard to joke about it.

    Being interested in science and just generally finding out about how things work, the possible loss of much accumulated human knowledge is a real bummer.

    Think about how many people have worked for so long to collect and integrate it.

  9. Aaron Lewis says:

    At least, polar bear teeth through the skull is a fast way to die. Prolonged starvation and hypothermia as a result of global sea rise flooding out critical infrastructure while the denialists shout, Why didn’t you warn us it could come in our lifetime?” is a less pleasant way to die.

    What we need to save is agriculture, chemistry and fiber to make clothing, enough government to give us law (enforceable contracts), sewage treatment, roads, railroads, ports and airports. All of which means that sea level should not rise faster than we can rebuild infrastructure. In short, it will be a race between rebuilding infrastructure and sea level rise due to global warming. It will be a race between developing technologies to replace our depleted oceans and the death of the oceans. It will be a race between technologies for sequestering carbon and tundra/methane clathrate releases.

    Let’s call it “Race Day”!

  10. Stuart says:

    Save the humans!

    although we don’t really deserve it…

  11. Fred Teal says:

    Actually, come to think about it, our accumulated human knowledge may not be worth a tinker’s damn if we still don’t have enough sense to save ourselves.

  12. substanti8 says:

    I wouldn’t bother with trying to salvage Earth Day, because it’s been all about tokenism for a long time – certainly as far back as 1990.  The 20th anniversary event was a disgusting corporate love-fest on the Washington Mall.

    Earth Day is for people who drive their SUVs to the gym so they can work out on a stationary bicycle.  It’s also for people who religiously recycle, but own nothing made from recycled materials.

  13. Fred Teal says:

    Let’s just think of it as a “Final Exam Day” for humanity.

  14. Here is a message to Joe Romm: “Scientists” did NOT remove Pluto from the list of planets. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet. Under this definition, our solar system has 13 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

    FYI, I am an environmentalist as well as an amateur astronomer and writer actively working in support of the planet status of Pluto and all dwarf planets.

  15. Leif says:

    Einstein said:

    “I do not know the weapons of WW III, but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

    I for one hope that WW III will be fought with reason and scientific understanding, humanity will emerge victorious and, as another commenter on this site said awhile back, WW IV will be fought with sonnets.

    So this Earth Day and the day after and after and after get out there and fight for your Mother EARTH.

    It is past time to justify your existence!

  16. Leif says:

    To be a little less “in your face,” justify OUR existence. I sometime forget who I am talking to.

    Time’s a waste’n.

  17. sambo says:

    How about Joe Romm is a giant A hole day?

  18. Leif says:

    How about sambo is a dumbo.

  19. sambo says:

    Joe Joe Joe. You forgot to


  20. Heraclitus says:

    Well, at least Sambo’s made me feel better about the prospect of humanity dying out.

    Life-support Day?

  21. “And no I was not being offensive.”

    Well thank goodness we have someone with sambo‘s third grade level of analytical ability and crack-dealer level of integrity to assure us of that fact. I was so getting worried.

  22. Ryan T says:

    As with cats, humans will “survive”. The question is in what condition: Whether they’ll thrive (something we want for our loved ones, at least). And ultimately, it’s Earth that provides, and we tend to take that for granted. We can recognize that with Earth Day, Nature Day, Biosphere Day, or whatever. As long as it’s an appreciation for the beauty and life-sustaining qualities of the environment, and the need to do what we can to pass them on no worse than we found them.

  23. Monique says:

    Excellent post Joe, thank you. Sorry, I think this is your best one since I found your blog last year. Have you ever thought of writing a book in this vein? Or moonlighting as one of the Today Show writers? I hope instead of Colbert (sorry Colbert fan), John Stewart picks up the rights to your post, Joe. Well done. It’s bedtime and I’ll go to bed happy, having laughed long and heartily. I’m still chuckling.

    Maybe it should be Get A Sense of Humor Day
    The Day After Tomorrow Day
    Keeping Up with the Cockroaches Day

    Have a good Earth Day everyone!

  24. bigjobsboard says:

    yeah. I agree. Everyday should be Earth day. A one-day Earth day is really not helping the planet. If we focus on doing green things everyday, we could dramatically counter the effects of global warming. Thanks for sharing this post. This is a great site.

  25. fj2 says:

    Salvation Day since we’ve almost succeeded in destroying Eden.

  26. Jason says:

    Since Earth Day is my birthday, I think I should get a couple of votes. One I like is Planet Home Day – it takes the current event and makes it much more personal to most people. I also wouldn’t throw away Conservation Day. Conservationist doesn’t scare conservatives like Environmentalist does. Or we could just go with Doh Day.

  27. Wit's End says:

    John Kerry today on HuffPo, “The Power of Earth Day”

    “It’s motivated me ever since — knowing that the movement that exploded that day would force President Nixon himself — a President who spied on me a year later — to sign into law the EPA and the Clean Water Act and the first wave of legislation that changed the face of the environment. Trust me, I of all people know he didn’t do those things because it was a nice thing to do, he did it because people — not the elected or the connected, just the American people — gave him no other choice.

    All of the fights and all of the progress we’ve made since, really can be traced back to the energy generated on that first Earth Day. I know full well I couldn’t have stopped the drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or beat back (Orwellian!) “reg reform” if politicians of my generation didn’t feel — or fear — the force of that movement. It’s called accountability.”

  28. Fred Teal says:

    If any of you followed the link left above by P. Gosselin #29, you might think that those environmentalists making so many dire predictions on that first Earth Day were a little daft. It is awkward reading them 40 years later, however, it was this concern and public outcry that motivated us to take action to stop much of the air pollution and other environmental change that was occurring then. A much more detailed rebuttal of the whole piece can be found here:

  29. mike roddy says:

    Excellent essay, but every single climate blogger leaves out a key part of this: temperate forests. Their functioning is entertwined with soil health and water, since forests prevent erosion and capture moisture in the soil and water from passing clouds for release during dry seasons.

    Temperate forests sequester far more carbon per acre than do tropical ones. The boreal sequesters the greatest overall quantity of carbon, and the Pacific Northwest forests and the Australian eucalypt hold the most per acre. US primary forests are down to about 5% of their historic range, if the definition is a functioning ecosystem including old trees. Tree farms and scattered copses don’t sequester nearly as much.

    About 350 billion tons of carbon pass through the terrestrial carbon cycle (annual emissions are a small fraction of that). Opportunities for forest restoration and major carbon sequestration are huge, including right here in the US. All we have to do is recycle more paper, get away from things like junk mail and throwaway packaging, and stop building houses out of two by fours. Then, alter land use financial incentives to enable forest restoration.

    People are bored by tree huggers like me: “There you go again, all that spotted owl crap, we already went through that” etc. I don’t care. A major element of the solution to climate change is right here, in the horrifying clearcuts of US and Canada western mountain ranges that need to return to functioning forestland. Denuded or monoculture landscapes are far more vulnerable to fire and insect mortality, other major feedbacks. Mature forests resist them.

    And yes, it’s about the people. Cacti and kudzu vines are not as good at capturing carbon, which is something we badly need. Oh, we’d also have cleaner and more water, freshwater fish (including migrating salmon), and wildlife.

    You da best, Joe, but you really need to get on top of this one.

  30. Chris Dudley says:

    I would not worry so much about attracting the wrong crowd. These issues should really be conservative issues and breaking the snarl of influence that is making conservatives slow on the uptake should be a priority.

    And, your humanist relativism position is pretty easily gamed by people like Lomborg. If we make a Gottian estimate that civilization is unlikely to last another 3000 years, then maximizing present wealth using fossil fuels may maximize welfare over the entire arc of civilization and harming future generations is just a part of bringing civilization to an inevitable end, to provide an example.

    Conservatives, on the other hand, are ready to accept absolutes such as ‘self-evident truths’ and may come to see harming the Earth as morally wrong. This provides a basis for action to conserve the Earth that needn’t be swayed and diluted by discount rate arguments or other progressive complexities.

    Perhaps attracting a conservative crowd would lead to the most progress….

  31. jcwinnie says:

    Lord Mockton Day?

  32. Giove says:

    FUBAR day?

  33. Robert Nagle says:

    No Carbon Day?
    Carbon Neutral Day?
    I like Triage Day too, although a lot of people don’t know the meaning of Triage (and plus, it doesn’t translate well into other languages).

    Carbon Neutral Day is simple and doesn’t beat around the bush and introduces the concept of carbon neutrality. Plus, it introduces the idea that for a day at least you can strive not to use any carbon…

  34. homunq says:

    I vote for “Final Exam Day”. If we pass the exam, we can rename it to “graduation day”.

    Really, if it were “triage”, it should be 3 days: one to celebrate (what will save itself), one to mourn (what can’t be saved), and one to fight (for what’s savable). The current “earth day” would be the last of those three days.

  35. Michael Tucker says:

    How about Ben Dover Day?

    I like many of the possible renaming choices but for me it is Ben Dover Day! If every day is now Earth Day we should have one day where we reflect on our imminent demise and how wonderful it all has been for the past 200,000 years.

    “…humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering.” – I’m not sure of that. Wit’s End, in 5 above, I think is correct in mentioning that “…some bats, bees, trees, birds, and frogs…[would] take issue with your assertion…”. Humans do complain the most and the loudest and I’m not sure that a few man-eating bears would be interpreted as an anti-climate change protest. The flora and fauna that have and will go extinct do “go gentle into that good night”. Think of all the animals, and humans, that are suffering now due to the loss of the Aral Sea and Lake Chad (not completely gone but very nearly). Humans are their only advocates and their greatest nemeses. But, Joe is still correct when he says we “…care about stopping global warming because of its impact on humans…”. No one cares about a world with spotted owls but no humans.

    So faced with: climate destruction, loss of species, ocean acidification, environmental pollution, ocean dead zones, deforestation, dust bowls, loss of aquifers, …etc, the focus, in the majority of the media, seems to be on recycling and water filters. There must be someone who thinks that: if I just filter my water at home, and stop buying bottled water, I will save the planet. I cannot imagine that to be true but I have heard the water filter message repeated more than a few times over the past two weeks. If that is the level of discussion (not here but in the popular media) then it is time to bend over and kiss your arss goodby.

  36. What Earth Action Day? The thing that irks me about earth day is that it seems for many that the very virtue of having Earth Day and wishing others happiness on that day is in any way beneficial to life on this planet. I think it’s great when people use it as a springboard to do something, like plant a tree or call their senators, though. The whole notion of doing something should be the core of it or else it becomes another BS Hallmark occasion.

  37. paulm says:

    We are Earth. Happy Gaia Day.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Bill McKibben claims that the Earth as we knew it is gone. His new book suggests that we live on a new planet, Eaarth. I like to pronounce it in a deep, guturral tone, eeee-aaaaaa-rrrr-tthh, much like the very tough species that will follow us if we don’t get our act together soon. That species, Homo survivor, will be those who learn to live within the limits of the new reality.

    See ya, I intend to be a survivor.

  39. Lobke says:

    If saving the earth is about saving ourselves. (And I totally agree with that part), Why don’t we just call it:

    Future day!

    For everyone who cares about their future!

    Also because i’m quite sure climate change will influence my future (i’m 26) in one way or the other. And i defenitely hope we are “sapiens” enough to make a consious decision about how we are creating our own future.