In the decade after the first Earth Day 34 years ago, people planted trees to fight smog, picketed toxic dumps, slogged through mud to clean up grungy river banks. Being Earth-friendly meant giving $25 to save the whales - or choosing unleaded gas at the pump.
But in the new millennium, using a trash can to "keep America beautiful" is not enough. One of the planet's most pressing problems - global warming - looks to be one of its most intractable. And that is proving frustrating to would-be activists.
Their challenge: How to get individuals to change their behavior for a problem that looms so large and is unlikely to be solved for generations.
"Environment took off as an issue in the 1970s because you could do something personal about recycling and pollution in neighborhoods," says Dale Jamieson, president of the International Society for Environmental Ethics. "One of the dangers of thinking about the global warming issue today is that it can be extremely impersonal, disempowering for people."
My friends, we need to get way beyond recycling. In order to "deal with the real", we have to acknowledge our overuse of automobiles, and emphasis on energy use for global commerce and transportation. While we use the art and science of economics to make convincing cases for global trade flows, we fail to address externalities and costs associated with the energy use required to sustain these flows. These externalities and costs include war and conflict in the Middle East and Asia.
Are we too spoiled, stubborn, or stupid to see the simple changes we can make to help alleviate the situation? Are we too greedy to care for the common good? Why do we have so many SUV's? Isn't anyone thinking beyond tonight and tomorrow? Why do we have to import so much food from thousands upon thousands of miles away, when we have the ability to grow it closer to home? Why are we forced to buy so much bottled water because everyone acknowledges that the tap water is "at your own risk" (too dangerous for most), but so few of us are willing to invest in water filtration systems?
It's time economists graduate from the naive and childish economic measurement system we currently use and start becoming a force of enlightened change. It's time we citizens do the same in our own forecasting and actions. Nothing in life comes for free, and when we destroy natural resources, we destroy value. Judging by the resilience of the Clean Air Act against steady attacks by special and corporate interests, it's clear there is a demand for the services of nature that isn't being appropriately measured in economic analysis or output calculations (like GNP).
Dare I say it's a structural problem? I will, in part, but there is very clearly a personal element here, and one that begs the question of the nature and extent of our attention. If we do something now, while there is still time, we just might avoid a natural catastrophe that could make 9/11 fade into irrelevance. Are we paying attention?
We can't wait until we are certain that our activities will doom us, or doom others along seacoasts, or radically change our environment and/or perspective on life - this kind of certainty only comes in hindsight after the dreaded potential has already materialized, and has little adaptive fitness.
Intelligence, wisdom, and courage counsel us to act while there is still uncertainty, but where the available information is too compelling to discount and, in that light, exposes potential risks that are too great to ignore.