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Earth Day 2012: Is there still time to save spaceship earth?

“. . . the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament . . . . We’re not the center of the universe; we’re way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it.”   Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders lamenting about his December 1968 “Earthrise” photo – the first image ever taken of Earth from the moon.

It was the 1960s when America’s collective consciousness woke up to rivers on fire, toxic poisoning, and other environmental calamities at a scale never before witnessed. The concept of Earth Day, now Earth week, was born from the passionate environmental leadership of John McConnell and Senator Gaylord Nelson, was first celebrated in San Francisco on March 21, 1970, and is now recognized by more than 175 countries around the globe. Comments from the Apollo astronauts helped to inspire the changing public conception of our planet. Today, we refer to the Earth as the Great Mother, spaceship Earth, a super-organism – Gaia – particularly those that can remember the 60s!

During the 60s, the growing awareness about an environmental crisis was sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that rivaled discontent over the Vietnam War. Mass demonstrations drew an estimated 20 million people in 1969 and gave us bipartisan environmental laws like the landmark Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Are we better off today as a result? Certainly, the planet would be in much worse shape if not for the efforts of those pioneers of Earth Day whose laid the essential ground work for improvements we now enjoy in the environment as reflected by recovery of threatened species like our nation’s symbol - the bald eagle -- new wilderness protections that connect us to the great outdoors, and cleaner air and drinking water standards. But in spite of these advances, we continue to play a form of Russian roulette with the planet’s fragile ecosystems. Consider these facts: nearly every ecosystem– marine, freshwater, terrestrial – has been in disrepair since at least the 1960s; most of the world’s fisheries are in rapid decline and coral reefs – a wellspring of marine tropical life -- are disappearing at alarming rates. Over half the planet’s rainforests are gone (deforestation has averaged over 13 million ha per year in the last decade alone); some 17,000 species are currently threatened with extinction and climate disruptions could trigger mass extinctions of over 30% of all the world’s known species within the lifetime of today’s children. While public polls show that strong majorities of voters continue to support national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas as essential to a state’s economy and quality of life, other polling indicates that Americans continue to favor economic growth over environmental protections--and that gap is widening as economies rebound too slowly. So what is today’s concerned citizen of spaceship Earth to do? In a recent article in Conservation Biology, Reed Noss and eleven other leading conservation professionals, including myself, called on conservationists to boldly advocate for at least half of the world’s ecosystems to be protected while there is still time to avoid a global extinction crisis. Currently, only about 13% of the world’s forests are legally protected, and while the 50% target may sound like a pipe dream, in British Columbia, the government agreed in 2001 to protect half the Great Bear Rainforest by 2013. Although the agreements have yet to be fully enacted, efforts are underway to meet an even higher (70%) protection standard as recommended by visionary scientists and conservation groups. The Canadians also are closing in on a similarly historic agreement to protect half of their boreal forests in recognition of the unique freshwater reservoir and carbon sink that these forests provide. Meanwhile, in the US, roadless areas, representing roughly a third (24 million ha) of the national forest system, were protected in 2001; that policy has stood up to court challenges from development interests, congressional attempts to override it, and, despite the rough economy, continues to enjoy a high level of public support. While protection is the cornerstone of conservation strategies, this does not mean that all bets are off on the rest of the planet’s ecosystems that are outside of protected reserves. As a matter of urgency, the UN recently called for increased attention to sustainable management of the world’s forests in order to avoid a global climate crisis. For instance, the UN estimates $17-40 billion in forest conservation investments are needed annually to prevent a 2 degree C rise in global temperatures expected in the next decade. This could come from a combination of new protected areas and better management outside them. But to achieve this, stepped-up and new financing mechanisms are needed, including conservation incentives that pay landowners for maintaining irreplaceable ecosystem services like carbon stored in intact forests along with continued public pressure to protect forests from unsustainable logging. One such example is the “markets campaign” led by Forest Ethics– an initiative to shift wood consumption away from endangered forests through consumer actions. The Society for Conservation Biology also recently proposed a 12-step program for meeting the UN challenge of sustainability that will soon be published online in Conservation Biology (watch for future details). In the meantime, in order to re-energize the environmental movement to be a key player in mainstream policy discussions, the environmental community needs to invest in improved messaging.  In particular, the movement must reach out to motivate young people whose access to clean air and clean water hangs in the balance. The track record of the 60s is strong evidence of the power and influence of large numbers of committed youth. As we take time to celebrate the 42nd earth day/earth week, this is an appropriate moment to remember the wise words of Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell who--like William Andres--saw the distant earth as “a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.” As Lovell peered out his Apollo window he pondered that “the vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on earth.” How long this oasis sustains us depends entirely on what we do to constrain our rapacious consumption of the planet’s finite ecosystems at a time of rapid population growth (the world eclipsed 7 billion people oddly enough last Halloween) and runaway climate disruptions. There is still time to achieve the vision of the first Earth Day leaders but only if we are truly ready to embrace the old adage – “think global, act local!”