America has observed Earth Day since 1970, but this year it is critical to acknowledge the debt that we owe to the complex world that supports and nurtures us. The pandemic interruption requires we reconsider business as usual. A newfound appreciation for the essential tasks of life, and for life itself, beckons us to reexamine the course heedlessly pursued for the last century. While economic health is important to a well-functioning society, unchecked growth comes with a heavy price.
Despite years of procrastination and disinformation coupled with active denial from industry (read as money spent to dissuade and discourage progress by buying influence over the public and governments) humanity must acknowledge the primacy of natural forces and the impacts on our basic existence. Science does not permit us to pick, choose and ignore observed, verified facts are valid just because they do not agree with our personal preferences.
We must, if we are to create a sustainable future and prevent the further collapse of our home, strike a balance somewhere between environmentalist and author Edward Abbey’s declaration that “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell,” and Milton Friedman, whose economic thought was a mainspring of Reagan-era political and economic theory. Friedman said, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
Abbey’s declaration is an oversimplification but speaks to our dilemma. For many years, business has made human and environmental needs a secondary consideration; until forced by government and public opinion to correct some of the most outrageous actions, corporations had a free hand to exploit human and natural resources with little regard to the tolls on people and nature. Friedman doesn’t account for the inequities and excesses that resulted by business fashioning what he calls the “rules of the game” in their favor.
Scientists term our era “Anthropocene,” a geological age where human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The impacts are manifested in extreme storms, droughts, and rain; rising seas, and soaring temperatures. Short-term, greedy, entrenched thinking has brought our dominion to a dead end.
As the only known planet hosting life, we must incorporate new lessons before complex, human-caused interactions “crash the system.” Earth’s processes will continue, but many life forms cannot adapt quickly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.
Businesses are beginning to recognize their responsibilities and some are incorporating better practices to improve their treatment of humans and the natural world. New thinking in charge of our society acknowledges the emergencies and is willing to use the tools available to improve our future. This Earth Day can be the start of a new American renewal. Coexistence, justice and sustainability must lead our new behaviors.