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Getting Down to Earth Day

Earth Day needs more Earth science



The round blue globe

NASA image
Earth Day is April 22. In your city are probably some low-key festivities, a children's parade or a fair in the park. Consciousness-raising focuses on recycling, preserving wildlife and visiting endangered landscapes. But Earth science is off the agenda. Is that the best we can do for the Earth?

As I see it, Earth Day is now safe as Kleenex, prone to feel-good rhetoric when what we need is urgent education. Earth Day is no longer what it was, a national teach-in.

Earth Day I: 1970

Earth Day's political side has faded since the first Earth Day in 1970. Conservation and the environment were vigorously debated then, part of a sea change in American thinking. Businesses and the public had high stakes, and the direction of what would be the Environmental Protection Agency was the prize.

One witness recalls a cornucopia of speech and debate that day. Exhibits protested defoliation in Vietnam; next to them Standard Oil handed out t-shirts promoting clean-burning gasoline and others demonstrated long-life light bulbs. From that discussion, national consensus was won for a generation.

Earth Day was born as a great stroke of activism and public relations. Today a bit of activism goes on, but basically the Earth Day agenda aims at the children, like other official holidays. That's a victory for the movement. But I wish Earth science had a more honored place in Earth Day.

Earth Day This Year

The Earth Day Network has a good central list of activities. Out of hundreds of events, few even flirt with Earth science. There are more garden festivals, kids' crafts and bicycle parades than ever. Earth Day is directed at Earth goodwill—that round blue icon on the flag.

I am all for this round-blue consciousness, because every geologist has it. Earth is a round, blue system, and the greatest environmental debate of our time—climate change—rests on the information geologists have given us.

A Dangerous Certainty

But Earth Day's version of this consciousness is a dangerous state of certainty about how the climate works.

Every part of the climate debate, from the sun's energy input to the carbon balance of the atmosphere and ocean, is informed by scientific measurements of the sea and atmosphere, a few decades of decent weather records and data from the geologic record. That is all we have for testing our computer models against reality. Geologists in the debate rely on a conviction that the data fits into a systematic whole—this Earth-Day awareness underlies their life's work.

For a generation after 1970, four different groups—business, government, science and activists—had a winning solution when it came to the old Earth Day goals of saving energy and reducing pollution:

  • Businesses were glad to earn money and good will, and glad to have settled regulations.
  • Governments were glad to start a popular program, and glad to have useful laws and processes.
  • Scientists were glad to enjoy wide interest and support, and glad to have important problems.
  • Environmentalists were glad to make progress toward a cleaner world, and glad to have real policy influence.

But in today's debate on climate change the four parties are far apart, and three of them have dropped out of Earth Day. The climate situation is one of ignorance—neutral, scientific ignorance. The scientific problem still has many unknowns, and there is not yet a trustworthy way to tell what result a policy will yield. Moreover, the four groups cannot agree on what steps are most urgent and most cost-effective.

New Goals for Earth Day

A dialog in all directions must start in earnest.

Business, environmentalists, and politicians today use science as a shield to avoid consensus, not a tool to explore possibilities. They will declare victory for their favored policy choices, black/white style, no matter what the global climate does.

Only the scientists are equipped to judge the shades of gray in the real data (though even they are prone to overcertainty). Neutral ignorance and neutral uncertainty—what precisely do we not know, and with what probability?—are close to the scientist's heart.

But "ignorance" also has another, more mystical meaning. It's the awareness, in all humility, that even the familiar things around us are fundamentally a mystery. This kind of ignorance is the very basis of good science, and I think everyone who knows all the answers should cultivate some. So let us all meditate upon that round blue globe, and the uncertainty of certainty, this coming Earth Day.

PS: What should geology-minded people do about Earth Day? Colleges, professional societies and government agencies are putting more and more of their energy into Earth Science Week in October. If it were up to me, I'd mix Earth Day with a bit of Burning Man instead. Meanwhile the real original International Earth Day, in March on the equinox, continues to be a solemn adult occasion.

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