April 22 marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, the annual day of action and reflection around the world with a singular focus: Save the Earth. Originally the brainstorm of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and primarily intended to put the environment on the national agenda, Earth Day has since evolved to include the participation of more than 1 billion people in over 190 countries. In addition, it has influenced legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, and the Endangered Species Act, as well as leading to the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Soon after his inauguration earlier this year President Biden announced that the U.S. would re-enter the Paris Climate Accord. He has since shown even more support for climate science and action by creating a new position, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, which will have a seat on the National Security Council and will be filled by John Kerry, a long-time environmental advocate.
Saving the earth is not a task left only to diplomats, however, but is also the responsibility of individual communities and households, states, and cities, and especially corporations and non-profits, many of which are taking action despite anemic efforts by local and state governments. In one week alone last month, articles in the Boston Globe provided examples of corporate action: Starbucks set targets to cut emissions and conserve water with a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030; Ralph Lauren committed to a new dye process that will, in Phase 1 alone, reduce water use by 40%; Mastercard is linking top executive bonuses to, among other things, their contributions to its key environmental initiatives.
What is at risk, of course, is not “the earth itself” as Al Gore points out in his 2009 book, Our Choice, but rather “the conditions that have made it hospitable for human beings.” Unfortunately, making choices and changes with delayed gratification or outcomes is not how our brains are wired. According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits and frequent Fortune 500 speaker, “Our [early] ancestors spent their days responding to grave threats, securing the next meal, and taking shelter from a storm. It made sense to place a high value on instant gratification…and after thousands of generations in an immediate-return environment, our brains evolved to prefer quick payoffs to long-term ones. [In other words] a reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future.”
This explains the challenges of forgoing a frigid iced latte served in a single-use plastic to-go cup with a straw during your drive to work each summer morning. The cooling satisfaction is certain, while the possibility of the straw getting stuck in a tortoise’s nose is so far in the future (how can a straw even get from Great Road to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?) that it seems just plain unlikely, or at the least, very much worth the long-term, far-away risk.
This far-away risk, however, is the “today” for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. The plastic bottle from your discarded 16-oz soda will someday come home to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren in the form of litter, cancer, weather events, and economics. It is their wee-little voices inside your head that can help you make changes during your today that will certainly make possible the health of their todays.
Some suggestions you could begin practicing this Earth Day:
- Gotta have that iced coffee/fountain soda? Ask for a paper cup w/no plastic lid or straw, especially if you are drinking it on-site.
- Toothpaste and shampoos are both available in forms that do not require plastic packaging. There are several toothpaste tablets sold in refillable glass jars and a decent selection of paper-wrapped shampoo bars.
- Use your local library before you decide you have to own every book you read.
- Dry your clothes outside, like your grandma used to do. Air-dried sheets smell so good!
- Eat less meat. Even keto and paleo fans can substitute eggs, seeds, nuts, and some oils for a fully satisfying and delicious meal.
- Plant a tree. Or two.
- Love your Bedford Farms ice cream? Choose a cone over a cup. Less waste.
- Use your voice (send a postcard or letter to your local representatives asking for change).
- Think Do you really need another ____ (fill in the blank) ____? Decrease demand.
- Use Using a bag or a box twice will cut demand for that material in half. With so much of our “recycling” landing in landfill, reducing production in the first place should be a priority.
- Maybe you joined the podcast hype during the pandemic? Try a new podcast such as How to Save a Planet that will deepen your understanding of climate change and provide you with additional ways to make an impact!
Take a few minutes with your family on April 22 and make a plan: what steps can you commit to over the next year? That immediate-return brain of yours will still thank you next year when you reflect on the measures you took to give your “great x 12” grandchildren a healthy and beautiful planet for their “todays.”