Today is Earth Day, a moment when children all over the world are taught valuable lessons about the wonders of the planet we live on and editorial writers who spend the rest of the year ignoring or mis-representing environmental issues and climate change feel compelled to say something sentimental about this big rock in space that we all live on.
Earth Day was inspired by a single photograph, known as “Earthrise,” which was taken by the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968. It shows the earth, shadowed by the moon, floating out in deep space. It was the first time the earth has ever been seen from different perspective. Sixteen months later, on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born. Twenty million people came out onto the streets across America, an event that to this day remains the largest civic event in human history.
“Earthrise” is a powerful photo, and I’m all for anything that helps people appreciate the wonders of our planet (the same holds true for another widely-viewed photo of earth from space, known as “The Blue Marble,” which was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972). But as a symbol for Earth Day, and for the challenges that we humans face on the planet today, the image sends the wrong signals.
First, there is no human presence in the photo. Yes, it is inspiring and awesome to see the naked planet, and you might argue, humans are not the point. But in fact, when you think about the earth in 2019, humans really are the point. What we are doing, how we are impacting it. How small changes in our behavior have big impacts. What Earth Day circa 2019 should really be about is not so much the wonders of Earth as viewed from space, but about our human relationship with earth and how we are managing it.
Second, “Earthrise” gives the impression that the earth is a fragile place. The earth is not a fragile place. In its 4.5 billion year history, earth has been through wild extremes of heat and cold, fire and ice (for all the gory details, I highly recommend Peter Brannen’s book The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions). Just one example: During the End-Permian mass extinction 250 million years ago, 500 mph hyper-hurricanes filled with poison swamp gases blew across the oceans and the climate so hot it killed everything but insects.
What is fragile is not the earth itself, but life on earth. Particularly human civilization, which has arisen during a remarkably mild, temperate interval in the earth’s climate. And now, thanks largely to the burning of fossil fuels, we are changing that. By dumping 37 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, we are pushing the climate system harder than Mother Nature herself ever has with all her volcanic eruptions and megastorms. And it’s not just the overall warming of the climate that is so risky – it’s the unknowns surprises that might be in store for us, from the collapse of Antarctic glaciers to new viruses released from melting permafrost. As Wally Broecker, the legendary Columbia University geochemist who coined the phrase “global warming,” famously said, “The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”
And the earth, truth be told, is not a dependable source of hugs and forgiveness for us humans. Nor does nature itself hold us in high esteem just because we’ve figured out a way to send photos of puppies across the planet instantaneously. As Brannen writes: “Life on earth constitutes a remarkably thin glaze of interesting chemistry on an otherwise unremarkable, cooling ball of stone, hovering like a sand grain in an endless ocean of empty space.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Earthrise” is that the image is obviously and overtly apolitical. You might argue that that’s the precisely the point, and that it’s valuable precisely because it communicates the beauty and wonder of our planet without forcing a debate about whether big polluters like the Koch brothers should be treated like war criminals for what they’ve done to knowingly trash the planet. And I agree there is virtue in that — you need to love something to fight for it.
But that is also an idea that’s radically out of synch with the times. The days of wonder are over now. We don’t need pretty pictures — we need action. At this moment on earth, we are in a fight for our lives, and the lives of future generations. The way “Earthrise” is viewed today, it’s all too close to those slick Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials in which he drives a big V-8 through spectacular mountains. Yeah, it’s pretty, but dude, your ride is killing us. We are in an urgent fight to preserve a habitable planet. The science is clear. We have the technology we need. What we don’t have is the political leadership. And a pretty picture of the earth floating in space doesn’t help much with that.
So what would be a more appropriate and inspiring image for Earth Day? If it were up to me, I’d vote for something a little more human. Perhaps the face of 15 year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose bluntness in describing the risks of what’s at stake is perfectly matched to our times. Or maybe an image of Extinction Rebellion activists, marching on the streets around the world. One way or another, it’s time for Earth Day to return to its roots as a day of anger and activism, not awe and celebration. The Earth is a beautiful place, but unless humans get their act together fast, there may be a lot fewer of us around to appreciate it.