For those of us who have made conservation our life’s work, Earth Day can be something of a bittersweet occasion.
On the one hand, it is a time to celebrate the successes of this vital movement; this year at Conservation International, we are marking our first quarter-century of protecting nature for the well-being of humanity. On the other hand, it is a time to be humbled — and similarly inspired — by how much more work we all have to do. It seems that now, 42 years after the first Earth Day, the times are a-changing as much as they ever were.
In many ways, April 22, 1970 feels like a world away. The Beatles were on the verge of releasing what would become their final album, “Let It Be.” Apollo 13 had just returned to Earth. The Fall of Saigon lay five years in the future.
And what we have come to know as the modern environmental movement was born — a year after the Santa Barbara Channel suffered a massive oil spill, a year after the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire, a year after the spirit of unrest and protest of the 1960s culminated in three historic days on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. The human assaults on the environment — and, in truth, on ourselves — no longer could be ignored. The United States Environmental Protection Agency was created. Amendments to the Clean Air Act soon followed, as did the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These milestones represented not only real and important progress, but the beginning of the mainstreaming of environmental awareness as well. The conversation was begun, and it continues to this day.
But 1970 was more than just a different time. It was, in a very real sense, a different world altogether. Consider this: At the time of the first Earth Day, the global population was roughly half what it is today. Some 3.6 billion people called our planet home, most of them living in rural areas. Fast forward to the present day and you’ll find that the human race has doubled its numbers in little more than the span of one generation. And now, for the first time in history, the majority of the more than 7 billion people on Earth live in cities, with the trend toward urbanization showing no signs of slowing. In the next 40 years, we can expect our numbers to grow to 9.2 billion, with some 2 billion people entering the burgeoning global middle class and with nearly 4 out of 5 of us living in urban areas.
This unprecedented growth comes with a great cost; we will need to double our supplies of food, water and energy over the next four decades to meet the rising demand — all at a time when the pace of our consumption would require two Earths to support us. And with the disproportionate impact of cities — which consume two-thirds of our energy and cause 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — we can expect to see the climes a-changing, too.
But there is another cost, arguably invisible but no less real in its consequences. Urbanization and the rapid pace of development are fostering a false sense of disconnection from the natural world within us, as we grow ever more removed from the sources of our food, water, energy and material goods. Yet this is an illusion, and one we cling to at our own peril.
In fact, we have never been more connected to each other, and we have never been so in need of a healthy planet to ensure our own well-being and prosperity. For it is in the health of our natural ecosystems — our forests and grasslands, our rivers and oceans — that we will find the resiliency we need to adapt to a changing climate and secure the invaluable goods and services of nature.
Nature, quite simply, is everything. It is the source of life. It is our foundation and our nourishment, our comfort and our treasury. And it is only by accounting for the full, comprehensive and irreplaceable value of nature in our decision-making that we can secure the future of human societies. It is a message we will carry with us to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio — and beyond.
On the eve of this Earth Day, I am encouraged and delighted by the progress I have seen and the beacons that lie ahead. Hopeful signs like Conservation International’s work on the African continent, where the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is allowing us to lead the development of a publicly available monitoring system for agriculture, human well-being and ecosystem health — one that will guide the necessary intensification to achieve global food security while better managing the natural resources needed for agriculture. Or our work on the global Ocean Health Index, which will create a benchmark of ocean health — and the threats that confront it — for every nation.
These are powerful tools, and together we can use them to forge a brighter future. For Earth. For Us.
Now, let’s roll up our sleeves. We’ve got some work to do.
Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.