Texts: excerpt from “A Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan * Psalm 24
The first Earth Day, which happened 50 years ago this week on April 22, 1970, was a big deal for me. This might seem strange since Earth Day wasn’t celebrated by significant groups of Canadians until 1980; and it is far from the most important date on most people’s calendar. In 1970, the first Earth Day was restricted to rallies in some U.S. college campuses and marches in a few of its biggest cities. Nevertheless, it changed my life.
In April 1970, I was 13-years old and living in Cornwall Ontario; and one of my school assignments that spring was to write and deliver a speech. The topic I chose was inspired by Earth Day.
I spent a lot of my childhood eagerly tuned to the goings-on in the United States, which lay just across the St. Lawrence River. Almost all the media we absorbed – TV shows, magazines, and recorded music — were American.
In 1970, I was trying to understand why the wild optimism of the mid-sixties in the States had turned into cultural and political turmoil. The War in Vietnam seemed to have no end in sight; the moon shots had lost their initial luster; and the joy encompassed by the phrase “sex and drugs and rock and roll” had become a foil with which the administration of President Richard Nixon had launched a War on Drugs, with disastrous effects on communities of colour and the youth movement.
I tried to understand these changes through the prism of TV shows like The Smothers Brothers and magazines like Time and Life.
Last week, I was delighted when an Internet search yielded the cover of Life Magazine from April 17, 1970, and which is projected on the screen behind me. The issue was devoted to the first Earth Day, and the words on the cover read “A new student cause: a crusade against too many people.” It was about a campaign called “Zero Population Growth,” and that became the subject of my school speech.
After reading this article, I became alarmed by the damage human society was causing to natural habitats; the pollution of air, soil, and water; and a rapid rise in the world’s population.
In 1970, there were about 3.7 billion people in the world and this number was increasing by more than 2% per year. Today there are about 7.7 billion, or more than twice as many as in 1970, although the yearly increase has slowed to 1% per year.
Last week, one of my cousins posted a neat graphic on Facebook. It was a screen capture from one of my favourite websites, worldometers.info. I discovered this website in March as a source of statistics related to COVID-19. But it has been known for more than 15 years as a reliable source of statistics about many things related to the environment including population.
The graphic showed an ever-updated population “clock” that for one instant last week tallied the number of people alive at 7,777,777,777, or ten sevens in a row. As my cousin Glenn stated, “Don’t you love it when the odometer hits a cool number?” When I checked worldometer’s “clock” this morning, it was already approaching 7 billion 779 million; and even with the rate of increase in population slowing, and even with terrible scourges like COVID-19, the next cool milestone of 8,888,888,888 is likely to occur within the next 15 years.
Back in 1970, I wondered if the end was near. Happily, even with more than two times as many people on earth today as then, it is clear now that my fears were overblown. Much has been done in the past 50 years to clean waterways, to curb the pollution caused by automobiles, and to slow the rate of population increase. At the same time, the standard of living has soared in all corners of the world. Human ingenuity in the face of social problems should never be underestimated, which is something that gives me hope in the face of the current pandemic crisis.
This is not to say that environmental alarm is no longer warranted. Climate disaster remains top of mind for many of us; and this is one reason why the current economic crash caused by the coronavirus pandemic could become a moment for governments and industries to factor environmental issues into their attempts to restart our shattered economies.
As I wrote on March 31 in one of the daily reflections that I posted on the church website during the first month of quarantine, 2020 looks like it will be the first year in centuries in which fewer fossil fuels will be burned than the year before. Oil consumption this month has decreased from 100 million barrels a day, which was the daily level in 2019, to 65 million barrels. This huge drop explains the crisis facing Alberta’s oil industry and why air quality has improved so much.
Everyone wants the economy to restart once the current health requirements for physical distancing have lessened. But upon what values should economic renewal be based? Wealth is based upon what people value, and these values can and do change over time.
This spring, the wealthiest countries in the world will be those in which there is both extensive COVID-19 testing and zero evidence of the virus. When a country like New Zealand or Taiwan hits this metric, it will become the envy of the rest of us.
This year, wealth will be measured more in the ability to physically gather with family and friends than it will be in money in the bank or consumer goods.
For the next few Sundays, I hope to examine how our sacred values might be reflected in recovery from the pandemic. How can things like community, beauty, and compassion best inform social and economic life?
This is the season of Easter, which is a time to celebrate resurrection. This year, some old ways of life are dying. How can our church, country, and world be resurrected in ways that support the values we hold most dear?
How we get from today, with its health and economic crises, to a world more in line with our sacred values is hardly clear to me. But as we work to recover from today’s crisis, I pray this will lead to economic, cultural and spiritual changes that will make this year a true moment of personal and collective resurrection.
May it be so.