Sunday, March 21, 2010

Earth Day: The Real Meaning

A year doesn’t go by where there isn’t at least one article about the real meaning behind each approaching holiday. Meaning, every Christmas there’s a story about the true meaning of December 25th, something besides massive shopping. Or, the Fourth of July, which is about our country’s founding values, and not smuggling fireworks into a state that forbids them. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, not really about terrorizing the turkey population.

So, what is Earth Day, April 22nd, really about? Sure, it’s a celebration: Earth Day: “Earth Day is a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth's environment. It is on 22 April. It was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) as an environmental teach-in in 1970 and is celebrated in many countries every year. The first Earth Day was in 1970.” - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As you can see, Earth Day is not really meant as a celebration. What Earth Day is really about is a reminder. It reminds us that we (meaning most of humanity) are disinclined to acknowledge that we are running the planet. Of course, we aren’t running the planet in the sense that now we have co-opted the laws of physics and biology and chemistry. We are running planet in the sense that there are over six billion of us whose every action now determines the environmental health of the planet. We are no longer bystanders, simply one of the innumerable species struggling to survive on a harsh planet. Our every action, like the power of the sun, is one of the driving forces that determine what species survive, which natural resources remain intact, the quality of our air, and how much land will be above or below water.

Earth Day, like other holidays, should remind us to revisit the purpose of the holiday in the first place. Obviously, we really need reminding that we have to change how we think about our planet.

Maybe a fitting metaphor will help remind us of why we observe Earth Day. You and your companions are in a row boat floating casually down the Niagara River towards the falls. You look around and all seems calm and serene, birds in the air, motor boats buzzing by, people waving from the shore. But you’re not a fool. You know where you are. You can hear, because you know enough to listen for it, the sounds of water roaring up ahead. You say to your companions that they should either turn the boat around and head away from the falls, or head to shore—quickly.

But, your friends aren’t from around these parts. They think the roar they hear is the traffic on the adjacent highway. The people frantically waving on the shore are simply being friendly. Everything looks fine and dandy to them. But you know it’s not. A few nuts have survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but you’re not up to it. For you, the falls are a tipping point. Everything might look OK to those unfamiliar with the power of the falls, but you know better. Once over the falls in a row boat, your life will be different—and not in a good way. There will be no going back.

Scientist say that many such tipping points are approaching if we don’t change our direction—climate change, the loss of biodiversity, ocean fishing stocks crashing, pollution, and much more. Your friends and neighbors may think that all looks good and our way of life is going along just swell. But you know better. Earth Day is your chance to get your companions to listen to the roar of the falls.

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