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Earth Day? How About Earth Life?

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By now, long after the first Earth Day in 1970, the moral war has been won. Everyone knows that being kinder to Earth is the right thing to do. Now we need to move on to the real work: doing the right things, hundreds and thousands of them. This challenge is bigger than one Earth Day can handle—it will take an entire Earth Year, and after that an ongoing, permanent Earth Life.

That doesn't mean it is wrong to keep celebrating Earth Day. Some things are simple enough for children to understand. We should continue the litter pickups and recycling demos on the 22d of April. We should keep fighting pollution and waste. But there are larger matters to consider, and the mayor's proclamation will give us little guidance.

In fact, the mayor needs to hear from us more than we need to hear from the mayor. The next few decades will be as wrenching as any period in human history as the world emerges from poverty and learns sustainable ways. Some facts have the weight of the planet behind them: At some point, we won't be able to burn more things to make electricity. At some point, atmospheric carbon dioxide will make the ocean too acidic to support coral reefs. At some point, we will need to manage the sea in all its complexity like a farmer's field. At some point, there will be no new soil for planting. At some point, the human population will stop growing. At some point, our mines will run short. None of this is in the Earth Day proclamations.

The future that will follow "some point" must first be imagined; all of us need to imagine it to take our part in making it happen. The usual "top-ten" advice for reducing global warming won't get us there. Long-term visions are needed, as ambitious as a child's career dreams. Then the visions must be turned to programs, as focused as an adult's retirement planning.

I recommend reading more science fiction, especially the "hard" kind, to help in envisioning alternative futures. (This isn't just my idea; the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach has said so too.) Consider the late writer Arthur C. Clarke, who popularized geostationary satellites 20 years before the first one took orbit. He didn't originate or design it, but he helped the rest of us understand and welcome it. And Isaac Asimov envisioned, in detail, how electronic intelligence might interact with human beings. Today their successors are looking even farther ahead.

Then appropriate technologies will need to be imagined, then devised, commercialized and adopted. Geothermal energy, carbon sequestration, advanced conservation, photovoltaics, alternative fuels, genetic engineering, nanotech and more are all fine, but more ideas are needed. The new ideas will come from tomorrow's engineers and scientists. Tomorrow's political leaders will need to administer that work, funding and monitoring the researchers—and all of these people are today's children. All of these people and efforts will be guided by what the geosphere permits.

The wonderful thing about this coming time is that if we act well there will be little or no bloodshed. Yes there will be conflict among nations and within communities; there will be displacements, adjustments, species extinctions. But cooperation will be demanded, and rewarded, just as if aliens had descended from spaceships and ordered us to get ourselves together and become climateers. And the scientific and technical advances to come will seem just as marvelous and unexpected.

At the opposite end of the calendar from Earth Day in mid-October, a group of geological organizations has sponsored Earth Science Week for the last 10 years. But as I said, an entire Earth Year is needed. It just so happens that the International Year of Planet Earth, which UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences supported in 2009, is planning a followup body called the Planet Earth Institute. I hope that it can take the lead in helping teach today's children, so that a great collective Earth Life may follow.

This was an entry in The Accretionary Wedge #8 in April 2008.

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