For Earth Day 2024

Today is the 54th Earth Day, a holiday generally aimed at raising global ecological consciousness.

It began in 1970 as a UNESCO project and I can’t help but hear Earth as system and Spaceship Earth from that origin then. is the organizer now, and declared this year’s theme to be “Planet vs. Plastics.”  They explain what that’s about:

Earth by NASA Goddard

advocat[ing] for widespread awareness on the health risk of plastics, rapidly phase out all single use plastics, urgently push for a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, and demand an end to fast fashion. Join us as we build a plastic-free planet for generations to come!

American Climate Corps logoPresident Biden chose this day to launch two things.  His American Climate Corps opened up for applications.  He also announced more solar power grants.

Great environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben used the day to share nothing but good climate change stories.

Elsewhere, there’s been a flurry of news articles and opinion pieces.  There are some holiday-themed sales (a feature on technology price savings was the first hit on the New York Times).  I haven’t seen too  much in the higher ed space, at least from Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  One fine exception is in upstate New York, where Cornell University and Ithaca College people are seeking to reclaim Earth Day.

As a futurist who’s been working on climate change and higher education for several years, I find the day a good one to step back and think about the bigger picture at a larger time scale, at a larger social level.  This year what comes to mind is… being unsettled.

I don’t mean the anxieties about global warming, at its worst wrecking the Earth and trashing civilization, although readers know this is something which gnaws at me daily, as it does many people.  Instead, I’m thinking about the fading of one human attitude towards the Earth and how something new is succeeding it gradually.

In 2016 Amitav Ghosh argued that western society grew used to a benign, controlled sense of nature.  It started with the industrial revolution – in a later book, I think Ghosh backdates this to the rise of colonialism – and came from the practical achievements of science and modernity. We gradually fought back a lot of nature’s cruelties, from diseases to weather.  This yielded a sense of the Earth as a resource for us to use or steward, not a terrifying place of danger.  The Earth became not a roaring landscape red in tooth and claw, but a manicured lawn or industrial farming.  Compare, say, the raw and fearsome nature seen in Beowulf with the nature in Jane Austen’s novels.

Climate change undoes this sensibility. That benign world is now capable of lashing back at us. The resources are problematic. Our controlling efforts have backfired. The Earth is no longer the lovely garden but a source of escalating chaos.

The late Bruno Latour developed this into a political theory in his later works, like Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018). That changing sense of our relationship to the Earth leaves us unmoored and adrift. “All forms of belonging are undergoing a metamorphosis.” (16) We are then vulnerable to authoritarian politics, as seen in Europe and the United States.

I’m not sure where the rest of us stand, if we refuse the authoritarians and still feel the Earth sliding away under our feet… which might be precisely the point.  If the Earth is no longer the trustworthy resource pool we thought we’d achieved, what is it?  What is our relationship to it?  Exploring that question is one function of climate fiction.  I think of those works as shards from emergent futures.  We can also see that new relationship arrive democratically, through folkways.

Yet how does academia change in response to this unsettlement?

To a significant extent we helped make the benign nature model Ghosh describes happen.  We did that through our research and teaching in the natural sciences, as well as how we developed generations of professionals from finance to psychology who implemented that vision.  To what extent is academic research and teaching developing the new relationship?

Our campus grounds, of course, literally represent that old model. Our lovely lawns and quads, our stately or simply official buildings, the carefully controlled watercourses show nature as firmly under human control.   How might the physical domain of a college or university change as the unmoored Earth relationship takes hold?

These are my thoughts tonight as I look at the orbital vision of the planet on Earth Day. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m running out of time.  Still: a planet so solid, and yet so uncertain once we consider what we’ve done to it.  What civilization will appear next to rethink its Earth?

(Earth photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

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5 Responses to For Earth Day 2024

  1. JWagoner says:

    Professor Bernard Quatermass – The will to survive is an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?
    Dr. Mathew Roney – Nothing, just go on squabbling like usual.

    ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, released 1967.

  2. Every day of the year needs World Earth Day attention and action — with a genuine, serious effort and not just brief news-media tokenism nor subtle dismissal.

    Too many people continue throwing non-biodegradable garbage down a dark chute or flush pollutants down toilet/sink drainage pipes as though they’re inconsequentially dispensing that waste into a black-hole singularity where it’s compressed into nothing.

    Societally, we still discharge out of elevated exhaust pipes, smoke stacks and, quite consequentially, from sky-high jet engines like it’s all absorbed into the natural environment without repercussion. Then there are the corporate-scale toxic-contaminant spills in rarely visited wilderness.

    What’s the very apt expression? “Out of sight, out of mind”?

    Obstacles to environmental progress were quite formidable pre-pandemic. But Covid-19 not only stalled most projects being undertaken, it added greatly to the already busy landfills and burning centers with disposed masks and other non-degradable biohazard-protective single-use materials.

    Also, increasingly problematic is the very large and growing populace who are too overworked, worried and even angry about food and housing unaffordability for themselves or their family — all while on insufficient income — to criticize the fossil fuel industry [etcetera] for whatever environmental damage their policies cause/allow, particularly when not immediately observable.

    Meantime, here in Canada carbon taxes manage to induce some the shrillest complaints, especially by the corporate news-media— even though it’s more than recouped (except for high-income earners) via federal government rebate.

    Many drivers of superfluously huge and over-powered thus gas-guzzling vehicles seem to consider it a basic human right. It may scare those drivers just to contemplate a world in which they can no longer readily fuel that ‘right’, especially since much quieter electric cars are for them no substitute.

    Once again, the disturbing mass addiction to fossil fuel products by the larger public is exposed, which undoubtedly helps keep the average consumer quiet about the planet’s greatest polluter, lest the consumer be deemed hypocritical.

  3. Earth Day highlights the urgency of the climate crisis, the need for faster systemic change, a more action-oriented approach in education, and the ethical responsibility towards future generations disproportionately impacted by climate change. Feeling unsettled by these challenges is understandable and can be a catalyst for positive change and innovation.

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