The day after Earth Day

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Well, glad that's done. The speeches are over; the sermons delivered; the demonstrations dispersed. 

OK. Move along. Nothing more to say. Earth Day is over. Get back into your SUV, drive to your 5000 square foot McMansion, flip on your 80-inch plasma TV, crank down the AC, crank up the grill, throw on a big slab of carbon-laden beef, secure in the knowledge you've done your duty, paid homage to the lonely little rock in space upon which we depend for life. 

 Whew. Hard work, great sacrifices. Sure glad Earth Day only comes once a year. 

Time to check the old investment portfolio and see how those fossil-fuel laden stocks are doing... 

Hyperbole? Well, not really. 

Yes, polls show that the majority of people support the environment, claim to want action on climate change, and consider themselves "green." But that support pretty much follows a proverbial mile-wide, inch-deep kind of commitment. Ask them to rank problems and climate change usually won’t show up in the top 10. In fact, in the most recent Pew poll on priorities, it showed up last in a lit of 21 issues. The top three issues are economic -- strengthening the economy, improving the job situation and reducing the deficit.    

So basically, the planet can go to hell -- literally -- but let's be sure our infrastructure is up to snuff, crime stats are lower, and social security is secured  … on and on it goes. As if we could have social security without first securing the planet.

Perhaps people are hardwired to ignore the long term and focus on the present proximate.  But geez, does any of that stuff really matter if our ports are locked in a perpetual struggle against rising seas for the next 1000 years?  Does anyone really believe any of those 20 issues that people rank above climate change can be solved -- or even addressed at all -- with continuously rising seas that will reach some 70 feet higher than they are now?

Can we really expect the economy to improve if we can't grow enough food to feed people? If the only jobs we create are building sea walls and hauling away dead bodies is that cause for celebration?  Date-line 2050: jobless rate finally falls due to uptick in morticians, grave-diggers, hearse manufacturers, and the mass deaths of many job seekers.

People, let's get real here.  We’re messing with the planet, and more specifically with an egg-shell thin atmosphere with which the current biomass -- humans included -- co-evolved in exquisitely balanced geochemical miracle capable of sustaining life.  Carefully wrought, painstakingly sensitive, frighteningly delicate, with tolerances that fall within a very narrow band. We are now introducing carbon at rates more than a 1000 times faster than what triggered two of the greatest mass extinctions in the geologic record.

How sensitive is our atmosphere?  As Ken Caldeira notes, if the atmosphere were the same density as water, then it would form an ocean just 30 feet deep. 

The gravest threat our species has ever faced is hurtling toward us like a slow motion nuclear holocaust, and we are focusing on things like immigration, gay marriage, and the Defense budget.

We are long past the time when paying homage to our one and only home, our refuge from oblivion, for a single day each year makes any sense whatsoever. 

This is a failure of leadership unrivalled in modern times.  This makes Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time" look like saber rattling. Never have so many ignored so much, and consigned so many to flood, fire, poverty, pestilence, famine and death.

What we need is a massive effort that makes cutting greenhouse gas emissions the obsessive objective of all we do. 

But that won't come from celebrating the Earth one day a year. And it won't come from leaders who are led by the political whims of the moment.


John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on

This article was originally published in Common Dreams and is reprinted here with permission. 

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