Earth Day 50

I recall researching a school project at my local library in seventh grade when I came across a graph in a textbook charting the rise of atmospheric CO2. I was immediately concerned.

That memory was activated years later while watching Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. The line I had seen as a 12 year old had extended upward and into the present.

Today, 50 years after the birth of the environmental movement, despite success addressing environmental crises like acid rain and the ozone layer, the world is in a crisis that was first studied in the Victorian era, and by all rights should have been solved at least a generation ago.

It is hard to say if it is climate change or humanity that is most stubborn, but by now it should be clear who will be the victor.

I now have a family and work as a high school teacher. My proximity to future generations through my children and students allows me little complacency when it comes to the climate crisis.

In a role-reversal, student-led marches now give me hope. They have energized the environmental movement globally in a way that has likely not been seen since the lead-up to the very first Earth Day.

But that is because kids today have the distinction of growing up in a world where atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been elevated by human activity to levels that no human being has experienced except for those alive right now.

Welcome to real-time climate change.

We are by now familiar with the concept of exponential growth as it applies to infection rates of COVID-19, but the dreaded curve also applies to human population growth, land use, global average temperature, and of course, levels of atmospheric CO2. Exponents are an abstract, mathematical concept that don’t fit well in natural systems.

The foundation of ecosystems is sunlight harnessed by plants performing photosynthesis. Like any foundation, it is what sets limits for the structure it supports.

There is, however, one glaring exception to this rule.

In the 1970’s, Stanford professor Dr. Paul Ehrlich famously warned that humanity would surpass the Earth’s capacity to sustain our growing numbers. But doomsday came to pass and we carried on, unhindered.

Unable to accept boundaries to growth, we pushed further into wild areas, leveling forests and jungles for our purposes, negating their natural value.

The intensity of industrial agriculture has maximized profit and productivity, while depleting aquifers and leaving half the world’s topsoil degraded. This has led to shockingly dire predictions that there are a limited number of harvests remaining.

We have proven our capacity for extraction by ramping up fishing to such a scale that we could do the seemingly impossible and collapse fish stocks altogether. Inversely, plastic pollution fills oceans at such a rate that by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

We have “gone to the bank” in many ways, but our most significant withdrawal has been using ancient solar energy (fossil fuels) to fuel our way of life. In doing so have thrown the carbon cycle of the Holocene off balance, inviting chaos.

Alarmingly, carbon persists in the atmosphere for decades at the least, and millennia at the most. How can we tell our children to clean up after themselves?

Simply put, human ingenuity has allowed us to live beyond natural limits, but limited our ability to seriously consider the consequences of doing so. Boundless growth is based on magical thinking and willful ignorance of the fact that growth today is made by stealing from tomorrow.

As the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment stated recently, “planetary health is human health”. We are actively crippling nature’s ability to maintain the health and prosperity of our species. That is our legacy.

When confronted with all this bad news, we are forced to choose between changing our world or changing our thinking about the world.

The latter doesn’t change anything besides your mind; it creates a tension with reality that is only resolved by ‘alternative facts’, denialism, and distrust of institutions and expertise that we need to get us out of this mess.

The coronavirus has shown us how ineffective opinions are in a crisis. The distinction to make is that COVID-19 affects humans, and climate changes everything.

The only real option is action, which is the theme of this year’s Earth Day. I like to think of action as inherently optimistic. No one engages in something with the expectation of failure. We got ourselves into this, and that means we can get ourselves out. The solutions exist. The only thing out of our control is time.

Please visit to engage in climate action and explore the path to a sustainable future.

Nick Clayton is a local teacher. He lives in The Blue Mountains with his wife and their 3 children.
Instagram & Twitter @nicknaclayton