A planet is for life, not just for Earth Day

Note added in proof: I see that Andrew has written eloquently on a similar theme, and is also hosting the latest Accretionary Wedge, which collects other geoblogospheric thoughts on Earth Day.
So, today is Earth Day. Whilst I’m never going to be completely opposed to attempts to get people to think more about their impact on our planet, and how we might do something to minimise it, it seems to me that focussing on today as a singular event is missing the point. If it’s to mean anything, this shouldn’t be the one day in the year when people “do something” for the environment; it should be the day when everyone reaffirms their commitment to do something every other day of the year, too.
As I commmented once on ye olde blog (you’ll need to head to the bottom), one of the problems with modern society is that the more environmentally sound choice is almost never the easiest, or the cheapest, or the most convenient, and hence our good intentions run into the plain fact that no-one can be bothered all of the time. I know that I don’t always switch off lights when I leave a room, or make sure I’m not overfilling a kettle, and I can hardly claim that I don’t know better. Sometimes, I’ll even feel a small pang of guilt when I realise that I’m taking the path more damaging, but this isn’t always enough to stay my hand. The problem is so vast, and in many ways so distantly related to our day-to-day life, that its hard to face environmental issues with any sense of personal urgency.
It’s certainly true that our individual impact on pollution or greenhouse gas emissions is very small on its own. But the fact that we do face serious environmental problems attests to the fact that when you multiply an action by five or six billion people, it can have a substantial effect on the world around us. But again, that’s a fairly abstract call to arms. It seems that we’re missing is a sense of connection with the planet, to make it’s welfare matter a bit more to us personally. And, I realise, I have felt such a connection many times before:

  • I hike up to the top of a ridge in the fading light of an overcast summer day. As I reach the brow, I’m treated to an awesome panorama – soaring mountains behind, wide valley in front, glacier in the middle.


    Although this is a popular viewpoint, at this time of day I’m the only one there. I sit down and for a good 30 minutes do nothing but drink in the spectacle and the silence.

  • A shadow suddenly falls on the path in front of me. I look up, and see a golden eagle gliding serenely past not ten feet above my head – I can make out individual feathers on its underside. It eyes me coldly, and having decided that I don’t look particularly edible, soars away on a thermal.

  • As I make my way across the hills towards a new outcrop, the wind is so strong that some gusts almost send me flying. Every step forward is a struggle. Sheets of water lifted up from some nearby lakes are periodically dumped on top of me. I feel so alive, I’m almost manic. It’s glorious.

These are just a few of a store of precious memories which I have called upon many times to calm me when I’m stressed or flustered, to lift me when I’m feeling depressed, or simply to remind me why I love my job when I find myself uninspired. But maybe I should give them a bit of unselfish work to do as well. In a certain sense, these experiences are gifts to me from the Earth, and they have enriched, and continue to enrich, my life in countless ways. Next time I’m tempted to drive rather than walk to the end of the street, or get the elevator rather than take the stairs, or forgo the trip to the bottle bank, I should remember what the Earth has given me, and let my gratitude inspire me to give something back. Perhaps you have some recollections which will help you do the same.

Categories: environment, ranting

Comments (6)

  1. floophy says:

    I found a game to celebrate Earth Day – http://www.fyrebug.com/?p=305 – you get to see how many times you can bounce the Earth.

  2. Andrew says:

    I have a lot of nice memories too. One good one is a summer morning on a research vessel in the Gulf of Alaska, a good hundred km offshore, in clear, calm weather. The St. Elias Range spanned half the horizon, and the sun rose behind Mount St. Elias itself, creeping around its shoulder with a dazzling burst of blue light refracted around the ice. A blue flash.
    I told that story to Clyde Wahrhaftig once, and he told me that when he was a child in the San Joaquin Valley, sleeping out in his yard, he would occasionally see a similar sunburst silhouetting the Sierra Nevada, invisible in the haze until that moment.

  3. Silver Fox says:

    Yes, this is very inspiring – I think that as geologists we can feel that connection to the planet often, and hopefully we can inspire other people to do so also, the way you have above.

  4. William says:

    I remember walking through a small wooded area on a rural college campus in the Midwest one summer. It was a warm, comfortable nighttime, and there were few lights about. Few artificial lights, anyway: I came in to a clearing, and hanging in the still air were fireflies. They were barely moving, hovering in place for some reason; there were dozens of them. It was like walking through a constellation that had come to Earth for a visit.
    On the other end of the emotional valence scale, I was in the Texas Hill Country one night when a storm blew in. Heat lightning washed the sky with big fluffs of light; sharp stabs connected earth and cloud; and, most amazingly, a cloud-to-cloud lightning arc would repeatedly start from one inverted hillock of cloud and flash to another, then with aching slowness break apart and spread out like the fan of a gingko leaf. Through it all the wind was blowing at me fit to whip a flag off its pole. Most amazing light show I’ve yet seen. I stood in the road and hurrah’ed my appreciation at it.

  5. Very poetic.
    However, given a choice between poetry and self-interest, people will choose self-interest. That’s why we have governments. Or, that’s why we used to have governments.

  6. coconino says:

    I am lucky to have many instances where I feel powerfully connected to place – the most memorable:
    Seeing the poppy fields in Antelope Valley – violent orange as far as the eye can see with the Tehachapis and San Gabriels in the distance.
    Standing in one of the passes in the high Sierras, looking to the east at the White Mountains and the Owens Valley in between.
    Hiking in the Gila with my mother and my child, sitting in the cliff ruins listening to a canyon wren cry across the canyon.