Earth Day, in its original iteration in the United States, was a call to political action. Citizens in large numbers organized events to pressure their political leaders to create laws to cut pollution and stop the extinction of species. In Canada, the first Earth Day was quietly marked by people doing their civic duty to pick up litter.
Litter clean-ups continue to this day because it gives one a sense of achievement, counted in the number of garbage bags you fill and the tidy look to the roadside or shorefront you traversed. I well know the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping to beautify your community. It, however, does nothing to reduce our footprint on the Earth.
Decisions like owning fewer vehicles, driving them less, buying fewer clothing items, and eating organically produced local food actually reduce the burden we put on the Earth. To be effective, this needs to be a collective project. That is where supportive policies and legislation are important. Transition insurance for farmers who want to get fields off the chemical spray treadmill and into organic production is an example. Another would be right-to-repair legislation that ensures consumer goods offered for sale can be repaired when they break.
Our buildings, vehicles, groceries, clothing, appliances, and electronics are largely made from raw materials extracted from nature. They are assembled or processed into goods or materials in factories powered by non-renewable energy that is neither clean nor free of waste. And then these materials are transported in ships, trains, trucks, and planes that run off fossil fuels. The more we consume, the more our choices reverberate back up the supply chain, worsening the climate crisis and further stressing the growing number of species on the verge of winking out of existence.
Collectively reducing our consumption of goods and materials will give us a better chance of passing on a livable world to our children and grandchildren. This requires two things: a change in our consumer culture, and a shift in our economic objectives.
Achieving changes in consumption patterns will not be easy. We live in a consumer society, where our identities get bound up with the kind of house we live in, what we drive, what we wear, and what we eat. This culture is powered by a gazillion dollar advertising business that assures us our consumption is the path to glory. The prime directive is to consume more, for if we do not, joy will be out of our reach, our reputation will be in tatters, and the economy will suffer.
And then there is the inconvenient truth that we live on a finite planet. There is only so much space to hold our wastes, and there are limits to the regenerative capacity of natural resources. There are limits to how much of our effluent the Earth can absorb. There are limits to how many fish we can take out of the sea. There are limits to growth in the consumption of energy and material resources.
All the litter pick-ups in the world don’t stand a chance in face of the sheer volume of plastics that have now found their way into our bodies and those of marine species.
The Earth’s ability to absorb wastes from burning ever more fossil fuels was used up long ago. As we know, the mounting surplus of methane and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is destabilizing our climate and acidifying our oceans.
The natural environment’s capacity to absorb ever-growing nutrient wastes from fertilizers, sewage, and detergents has been overwhelmed. The dead zones in our estuaries and oceans, and the blue-green algal blooms in our lakes and rivers are a testament to that.
Wild species are now winking out of existence at a fearful rate as their habitats continue to be degraded or usurped. The web of life, in which we are embedded, is unravelling at a breakneck pace. This will not end well unless we can stop it.
Fortunately, a shift in economic thinking is underway that sees stability, security, and well-being as critical goals for our economy to achieve, rather than indiscriminate growth. These are the new underpinnings of prosperity, and of the sustainability we so urgently need to achieve. With the wide adoption of ecological economics, waste will be relegated to the dustbin of history, and litter pick ups will be a thing of the past.
David Coon is the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton South.