Earth Day 2000: What Humanity Can Do Now to Turn the Tide

Note from a Worldwatcher: Formative Moments

What makes people care deeply (or not care deeply, as is too often the case) about the long-term health of the planet? What could bring the kind of sea change in human behavior and belief that many experts now say must happen very quickly? Working on this Earth Day issue, I realized that the kinds of sweeping policy reforms or technological revolutions that change the course of civilization arent necessarily the influences that move us most immediately as individuals. We have listed some of those civilization-changing events on pages 12 and 13, but as I consider them, I realize they are the events that merely set the stage upon which we act as individuals. But what actually motivates us to act as we do? 

As a World Watch reader, you are presumably among those who do care deeply, and it would be of interest to know what gave you the consciousness or commitment you now have. Were there particular experiences you had as a kid, or as a student, or in your work or your reading, for example, thatwhether subtly or dramaticallychanged the course of your life?  It would be good to know what makes us all tick, because its a question of considerable importance to the future volition of society at large. I reflected on what had made me care, and realized that many of my own formative moments go back to childhoodand that at the time, most of them probably didnt seem all that momentous. Others came later, and had a more galvanizing effect. Among them:

  • Playing in the woods of northern New Jersey as a young kid in the 1940s and coming upon a jack-in-the-pulpit, which I had been taught to recognize and had been told is very, very special and should never be picked. I dont think I ever felt a need to ask why. It may have been one of the first times I felt a sense of the sacred.
  • Reading Robin Hood around the age of 11 or 12 and being entranced by the notion of living with a bunch of guys in a forest under a great oak tree with branches spreading broadly around, and venturing forth now and then to relieve the rich and pompous Sheriff of Nottingham of his gold so we could give it to the poor. (Decades later, a Robin Hood-like fellow would appear on the cover of World Watch, boldly challenging a heavily armored knight whose face could not be seento illustrate an article about the emerging environmental challenge to the GATT. A few years after that, when the GATT was absorbed into the World Trade Organization, it was no longer a faceless threat.)
  •  As a 13-year-old, spending long summer days trying to catch snakes and turtles (a painted turtle is not slower than a hare), and also becoming a dedicated collector of rocks and minerals. Was this a precocious venture in interdisciplinary studies? No, I just liked turtles and rocks. I built a museum in my back yard, putting a door and windows in a 20-foot-long wooden packing crate that had been used to ship a foreign car -(this was before Toyota and Honda existed, and foreign cars were exotic machines shipped to the United States in crates). I called this new building The Museum of Reptiles and Minerals.
  • Publishing my first magazine, Mineralogy News, as a 13-year-oldfirst with a hectograph, then with a mimeograph, and finally with a 11/2-ton cast-iron printing press, which I operated in my basement by pushing a big iron flywheel with my left hand while feeding paper with the right (Id spent all my savings on the press and couldnt afford a motor to run it). I set all the lead type by hand, doing basically the same thing Guttenberg had. One of my first stories (in 1954, if I recall) was about a man at Bell Labs who had just developed a new energy technologyusing a thin silicon wafer to collect solar energy. What impressed me was not that it was the sun that did this (the demonstration was actually done at night, with a light bulb standing in for the sun), but that it was a rock that was collecting the energy. Plain old quartz could run a motor!
  • Running on my high school cross-country team, exhilarated by the sharp air and bright foliage of the October woods and fields. And decades later, wondering what in the world we had done to ourselves to let the carbon dioxide content of the Earths atmosphere rise nearly 30 percent since I was a kid.
  • Reading Thoreaus Walden and liking it, even though it reminded me of the times my boy scout troop went on survival camping trips but took time out for side trips to get hamburgers and ice cream sodas. Are we really serious about survival? Or, is it just an idea that gives a nice panache to the culture of sport utility vehicles, North Face camping gear, and guns?
  • Going to work for my older brother Bob, an environmental researcher in the 1970s when the movement was in its infancy, and learning about the concept of externalitiesthe environmental or social costs that arent charged to the consumers and end up being paid by some other generation or species or culture. Later meeting the environmental economist Herman Daly, and thinking someday he should be given the Nobel Prize.
  • Moving to Southern California in the late 1980s, exulting in the vista of rolling chaparral hills in the valley below my ridge-top house; worrying about the rampant development Id heard was going on_in the county; discovering with relief that a new environmental law prohibited any more building on hills as steep as thosethen watching a fleet of 40 giant earth-movers arrive one summer to remove those hills, so the laws protecting them would no longer apply.
  • Reading Edward O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life.
  • Reading, in the local newspaper of that same California community (Valencia), about a 250-year-old heritage oak that was to be cut down so that a nearby convenience store could expand.
  • Reading Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • Going for a long run in the Mojave Desert, one day when the temperature was over 100 degrees F. and there had been no rain for nearly two monthsand coming across a large, delicate, lily-like flower* in full bloom. Picking it and putting its stem in my water bottle to take back, because no-one would believe this otherwiseand having it crumple like a moth in a flame within minutes. And realizing that nature is both amazingly durable and terribly fragile.
    Ed Ayres, Editor

*Later identified as sacred datura (Datura wrightii)
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