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Let’s Rename Earth Day

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"Let’s Rename Earth Day"

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Funny Earth Day Ecard: I wonder if the next planet we destroy will also get its own holiday.

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

earth-dayIn 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 remains more relevant than ever in light of the world’s ongoing inaction on climate change, the over-running of Congress by climate zombies, Obama’s multi-year fecklessness on this gravest of threats, and the amazing climate silence of the U.S. media.

In a 2009 interview, then Energy SecretarySteven 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. If every day is Earth Day, than April 22 definitely needs a new name. So I’m updating the column one more:

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 mostly eliminated their feeding habitat — the polar ice, probably by the 2020s and maybe 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 jellyfish 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 (and ratsnakes,  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 7 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 (see “Dust-Bowlification“).

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 NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100). 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, virtually all of them 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….

Eaarth day?

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45 Responses to Let’s Rename Earth Day

  1. How about “Life Day?” Considering we need the ecosystem to survive, and we’re careening down the path towards our own potential demise, I think Life Day would help to remind people that climate change isn’t just about polar bears, but very tangibly about our lives, personally and up close. On Life Day, I choose to live, and to encourage governments and businesses and other people to also make choices that may help us live. Lest it become Requiem Day.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      You appear to be a ‘humane being’. Unfortunately there are many, within humanity, who do not value life at all, preferring money and power, and they currently dominate this planet utterly.

  2. Ray Kondrasuk says:

    Sweet subtlety, Joe.

    “..I think at the very least we should drop one of the sapiens…”

    What an uppercut of an understatement!

  3. Ed Ciaccio says:

    I suggest “Human Survival Day”, or even “Future Generations Day”.

    • Brooks Bridges says:

      Children’s Future Day – as in trying to save theirs.

      And definitely rename us to Homo Stultus ( or one of the other Latin words for stupid)

  4. dick smith says:

    I was struck by your comment about 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 drove 1200 miles to attend the State Department’s hearing on KXL at Grand Island. About 800 to 1,000 people attended–despite storm conditions that closed Interstate 80.

    Only 2 of the first 65 speakers mentioned climate change, global warming or greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all the testimony was all about the “caribou” of Nebraska–their farmland, rivers and aquifer. They were “environmentalists”–not climate hawks.

    I was stunned and disturbed by the NIMBY nature of the testimony. It made me wonder if the pipeline were re-routed through Iowa and Missouri if any of them would have shown up to testify against it.

    • Joan Savage says:

      dick smith, Thank you thank you for your presence at the hearing in Grand Island.

    • juandos says:

      I drove 1200 miles to attend the State Department’s hearing on KXL at Grand Island“…

      Hmmm, sounds like the activist outfits were packing the meeting with their shills…

    • ClimateForAll says:

      That storm wasnt a snow storm was it?

  5. mulp says:

    We need a “pillage and plunder today for tomorrow we all die” day.

    Or perhaps more succinctly

    “You can’t take it with you” day.

    This would be a day when blowing off the tops of mountains would be celebrated against the backdrop of old crippled coal miners visiting a graveyard being relocated to make way for the mine.

    Graveyards flooded along with communities.

    Americans more than any other people have the sense that life is short and you need to live life to the fullest and leave nothing behind.

    Pictures of Detroit and other abandoned cities with their few remaining poor old people waiting for their end.

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    People are probably going to do fine. It’s most of the other 30 million species on the earth, the ones that can’t adapt, not the urban cockroaches, not the rats and not the humans, that will become extinct. That’s the abomination before God and the deep sin visited upon our common descendents.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    I wouldn’t mind renaming Earth Day to Earth Triage Day. That gets the point across. Which species do we save?

    Just plain Triage Day implies by default human triage — which continents of people are we going to sacrifice for the wealth of the remaining continents. Actually, we do this now. Not at all the same message.

  8. Jeff Poole says:

    Remembrance Day.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    For me, Earth Day is an emotional hybrid of inconsolable grief for irretrievable losses and my undiminished love for what still lives.

    Walk in beauty.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      And, ‘Tread softly for you tread on my dreams’. I always thought that ‘upon’ would have been better.

  10. Sasparilla says:

    An excellent, somber article Joe – very appropriate for where we find ourselves.

    I like Triage Day – I’d add Climate to the front of it, only to sharpen the point of what its about.

  11. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Extinction day. Celebrate the coming extinction of Homo Sapiens stupidicus.

    As George Carlin said “the Planet isn’t going anywhere, we are. Were going away, pack your shit folks we are going away.”

  12. Ernest says:

    I resonate with the tone of this piece. I have to look at the accusations by the conservatives that environmentalism is kind of quasi religion with images of the human race finally living in oneness and harmony with “mother earth” and with other fellow human beings and that there will be a “new age”, whereas the real issue is simply more basic, survival.

    Also, what is the Latin for homo “still not yet wise enough”. Another failed experiment in evolution.

  13. Paul Magnus says:

    I like Eaarth Day.
    Could also be ‘I/we could have done more’ day….

  14. I vote for “Survival Day” or even “are we really that stupid day?”

  15. Mark Haag says:

    How about Grandchildren’s day? They are the ones who are going to be living in the Hell we create.

  16. I can’t quite subscribe to the overly anthropocentric view. If we disconnect ourselves emotionally from the biosphere, our roots, we will only grasp our situation intellectually — and be less likely to do anything about it. Also, the biosphere is a system, and as bad as global warming is, it is only part of what ails it.

    The real issue is overconsumption of resources. Burning fossil fuels happens to be an immediate threat, but destroying sinks/sources like forests; exacerbating desertification by destroying the ecosystems at the margins of the deserts; killing all the fish in the deep blue sea — these are just as threatening as causes of climate change and the demise of the human species.

    What goes around comes around, and if we don’t see ourselves as living in harmony with nature, in a profound, empathetic sense, the biosphere will brush us off like a pesky fly. Our biophilia, to use Wilson’s word, is our link to our own salvation. And besides, who wants to live on a planet where nature is dead and our only solace from the madding crowd is to zone out in front of some kind of screen?

  17. Artful Dodger says:

    It’s obvious, isn’t it? “Greenhouse Earth Day”.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      A day to pause, recognize and grieve for all the lives lost and the suffering inflicted by the droughts, hurricanes, storm surges, and resource wars of the previous calendar year…

      Brought to you by the letters C & O, and the number 2. Even a preschooler understands that.

  18. JCF says:

    Living on Earth Day (the PBS show might sue, but I think they would be OK w/ it)

  19. When you mentioned the possible survival of the bark beetle, I got to thinking. I think the bark beetles might be in trouble. The problem is that they seem to be going through the trees so fast that they might run out of them. In other words, they might be destroying their own life support system due to their very great numbers with no thought for the future. Then the corollary is that we, in our treatment of the planet’s life support system, are exhibiting all the intelligence of a bark beetle.

    Hmmmm. Maybe we should rename Earth Day and call it “Are You Smarter Than A Bark Beetle Day”.

    Some of my pictures of beetle infested trees in Colorado and of how they are clear-cutting the infested areas due to the fire hazard created by the dried-out trees: http://www.gibbworld.com/west2010/beetlepics.html

    • Dennis Tomlinson says:

      Thank you Thomas for linking your wonderful web site.

      I fear that as the bark beetle runs out of pines to infest, some strains will “evolve” to become consumers of birch; others to consume aspen; still others to consume poplar.

  20. Joan Savage says:

    We could go the way of the cyanobacteria, once the prevalent form of life, which produced so much oxygen as a byproduct that the world’s atmosphere shifted in favor of other life forms. Cyanobacteria are still around, but they don’t pretend to have authority over the earth. Or they aren’t telling.

  21. dallasm says:

    How about renaming it to “Pollution Day”. It would be a day where we celebrate to wonders of pollution of all kinds.

    Then the next 354.25 days of the year we all try as hard as we can to reduce our footprints.

  22. Carol says:

    Am wondering how Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold would respond to this piece by Joe. ( E.O. Wilson too— as Philip mentions above).
    I believe their effectiveness as activists and scientists was due, in part, to their deep abiding love of the nonhuman world.

    Articles like this seem so bleak (can’t seem to muster any chuckles . . none of this is funny). Anyone else out there repulsed by the thought of encouraging even more anthropocentrism?
    Does anyone else feel like the more detached emotionally and physically we become from the nonhuman world (including where we get our food/water) the closer we get to our demise?

    Joe says: “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.”——–

    Joe, do you think the remaining indigenous communities throughout the world are elitist? Perhaps we should ask Idle no More’s Theresa Spence about her concern over the earth and whether or not it exists because she has nothing more to do, “elitist” that she is!

    Like Joe, I too have a young daughter. Not only do I fear for her future (and mine) but I grieve over the harmful, fatal impacts to human and nonhuman life on this planet as a result of AGW.
    There are times I envy those who do not feel love for creatures that are not human. It would be somewhat easier (reducing the grief factor) as we face the 6th extinction and the never ending onslaught of loss and suffering.

    “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” ——-Rachel Carson

  23. Anne says:

    I have come to resent Earth Day as much as I resent Mothers Day. EACH AND EVERY DAY: BE KIND TO YOUR MOTHER, AS YOU WOULD BE KIND TO YOUR EARTH MOTHER. No exceptions — 24/7/365.

  24. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    I think ‘Save the Earth Day’ would get the idea across to just about everybody.

  25. Beth says:

    Joe, I read your blog almost every day, including the contributing thoughts and ideas from your other readers. I post your articles on fb as often as I think my “friends” can stand. Today, while I understand that a practical “triage” approach may be where we are if the best we can do is save a minimally livable planet, I must respectfully disagree with the suggestion that saving the earth – its essential biosphere – is all about us (humans). I mourn for all species, and for Earth’s crushing beauty, every time I see this:
    http://www.youtube.com/embed/auSo1MyWf8g?rel=0

    • Carol says:

      I agree Beth . . . well said.
      Am wondering how Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold would respond to this piece by Joe.
      I believe their effectiveness as activists and scientists was due, in part, to their deep abiding love of the nonhuman world.
      Articles like this seem so bleak (can’t seem to muster any chuckles . . none of this is funny).
      Does anyone else feel like the more detached emotionally and physically we become from the nonhuman world (including where we get our food/water) the closer we get to our demise?

      Joe says: “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.”——–
      Joe, do you think the remaining indigenous communities throughout the world are elitist? Perhaps we should ask Idle no More’s Theresa Spence about her concern over the earth and whether or not it exists because she has nothing more to do, “elitist” that she is!

      Like Joe, I too have a young daughter. Not only do I fear for her future (and mine) but I grieve over the harmful, fatal impacts to human and nonhuman life on this planet as a result of AGW.

      “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” ——-Rachel Carson

    • Joe Romm says:

      It is probably true we hang out with different people. I’m a big fan of the natural world — but this post is mostly about communications.

      • Beth says:

        It’s true that different messages reach and resonate with different people for different reasons. To me, as is clearly true of the people who read this blog, the science of climate change screams WOW! OMG! HURRY UP! DO SOMETHING NOW! Yet, I cannot tell you how many people are bored by it. Not necessarily skeptical. Bored. So there are various angles to work if we want to pull as many people in as possible. Maybe for some people the heart has to be accessed before the head?

  26. Larry Gilman says:

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

    I’m no fan of the “This Day” and “That Day” thing, but your apparently hard-headed statement is itself profoundly misdirected. Love for our world, starting with local places, is essential to the kind of activism you rightly call for every day. “Saving ourselves” should be in our motivational kit but hedged with the awareness that it is highly co-optable and gameable: there is hardly anything, by the enlightened-self-interest standard, that cannot be plausibly flushed down the extractive-capitalism toilet. Probably a majority of living species could be wiped off the Earth without threatening human survival, as so many already have been (no piffle about wonder drugs hiding in the rain forest is going to change this fact). We don’t _need_ the blue whales or the polar bears, not human-survivalwise. In fact, survival-wise, we don’t _need_ any specific, individual place or species to be saved from the bulldozer blade: so “saving ourselves” will always be weak, case by case, against utilitarian arguments for exploitation.

    Also, “saving ourselves” is going to be a highly abstract and non-motivating goal to the scores of millions of people whose well-being is not immediately, and I mean daily and palpably, affected by climate change: but love of place, season, rain, sky, puddle, tree, bird, which you dismiss as “misdirected,” is something that can move us every single day. And that does move millions of us every day, including probably most real-world activists. Why care for saving “ourselves” (meaning, for most Americans, not actually our personal selves but the third-worlders and future generations who are going to be hit hardest) if we do not love more generally? Is there one kind of love or concern or responsibilty-taking that can exist in isolation from, or thrive in competition with, other kinds?

    Any quasi-hardheaded dissing of any kind of love or affection strikes me as rhetorically misguided in the extreme — to put it kindly. Don’t know if your book on persuasive messaging recommends this pose or not: if so, you might wish to rethink it.

  27. Larry Gilman says:

    “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.”

    Do you really think that people are fighting for the Arctic because of a highly conservative version of the Precautionary Principle? Because we’re not _sure_ we don’t need belugas? So — keep them around them just in case? A sort of motivational double negative?

    Joe, that’s just gold-plated B.S. Very few activists really get out of bed in the morning to save something because nobody has been able to prove positively that they, or a descendant of theirs, might not need it someday.

    People do it for love, Joe. Earth Day may be a crock, but love is our only hope.

    Preaching enlightened selfishness mostly ends up strengthening just plain selfishness.

    http://www.larrygilmen.net

    • Joe Romm says:

      “Need it someday” is not my point, so don’t argue with a strawman.

      The fact is that “people” don’t do it for love — a (so-far ineffective) subset of environmentalists do. I’m not addressing them.

  28. Artful Dodger says:

    “Smearfh Day”, an update on those adorable cartoon characters of our innocent youth. Oh, and Smearfh’s are green rather than blue. Smearfh World is as red as Dante’s inferno.

    This will be especially popular with today’s children, although not until later in their lives as they deal with the climate legacy we’re leaving to them.

    Smearfh! (Note: the term ‘smurf‘ was also used as a curse)

  29. Global Green Hu says:

    Aerosol pollution impacts our climate over the short term. Carbon pollution is the main culprit over the long term. http://clmtr.lt/cb/rtF03m

  30. gcruse says:

    Well, fudge. I read that as saying
    that today is the day we rename Earth.
    I was going to suggest, “Gladys Knight,”
    so we could all be Pips.