Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Martin Henry | Earth Day and looming disasters

Published:Sunday | April 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Lucon Lloyd, junior warehouse supervisor, is all smiles as he carries bags of used plastic containers to the fortnightly Wisynco ECO Troopers bottle drive, held recently at the manufacturer's corporate office in Lakes Pen, St Catherine.

Another Earth Day is here, April 22. What's the state of the global environment and the local environment as the world focuses today on critical environmental issues and the very survival of humankind on the planet?

World-famous physicist, the late Stephen Hawking, who survived to 76 with crippling motor neurone disease, no longer has to worry about human survival on the planet since he left on March 14. Hawking took an active interest in space travel. "I believe," he said, "that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space."

For the time being, we are stuck here, and the health of the planet is a matter of human survival.

In this year's World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, five of the top eight risks identified by business leaders around the world as most impactful and most likely to happen are environmental. These are: extreme weather events, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, man-made environmental disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and natural disasters. Another of the top risks, water crises, is labelled by the WEF as a societal risk, but it can also be considered an environmental risk.

The Risks Report has a section titled 'Our planet on the brink." That section says, "Among the most pressing environmental challenges facing us are extreme weather events and temperatures; accelerating biodiversity loss; pollution of air, soil and water; failures of climate-change mitigation and adaptation; and transition risks as we move to a low-carbon future. ... We have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear."

The first Earth Day in 1970 was strictly American, organised by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and brought an estimated 20 million Americans into the streets around various environmental issues that had been gaining attention through the 1960s. Rachel Carson had published 'Silent Spring' in 1962 detailing the adverse effects of pesticides, particularly on bird life, and setting off the environmental movement.

The Earth Day Network recounts the story with a great deal of pride and urgency. I have modified it a little: Earth Day 1970 gave voice to that emerging consciousness, channelling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns on the front page.

The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day and at the time then a senator after he witnessed the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969.

Inspired by the student anti-war movement which was in full force, he realised that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a "national teach-in on the environment" to the national media. He persuaded Pete McCloskey, Republican Congressman who was conservation-minded to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organised protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realised they shared common values.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labour leaders.

By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

As 1990 came up, a group of environmental leaders asked Denis Hayes to organise another big campaign to take Earth Day global. Some 200 million people were mobilised in 141 countries in defence of the environment. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.


Day of action


Today Earth Day had reached the status of being the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year, and a day of action that changes human behaviour and provokes policy changes.

The Earth Day theme this year is 'End Plastic Pollution'. Denis Hayes, who was Chief Earth Day organiser for Senator Nelson back in 1970 is still very much alive and engaged in the trenches of environmental activism. In an interview for Earth Day 2018, he noted, "There is not much that the average person can do about the Pacific Garbage Patch or to ban endocrine disrupting plasticisers except scream at politicians to take the issues seriously. So inviting political leaders to rallies and teach-ins and confronting them can be useful.

An aroused public can overcome a powerful economic interest, but only when the issue is felt intensely. Until ending 'one-way' plastics becomes a political priority around the world, [their manufacture] will continue unabated. Meanwhile, we, nevertheless, each should "be the change we want to see." The world produces at least a trillion plastic bags each year. Don't be part of this gigantic waste stream that makes a one-way trip from the oil well to the dump."

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch that Denis Hayes spoke about is a 618,000-square-miles (twice the size of Texas) accumulation of an estimated 79,000 metric tons of plastic by ocean currents in the North Pacific and which is growing exponentially every year.

Our own Government is initiating a plastic-bottle recycling programme with the private sector. Its main drawback is that it is to be financed by a bottle tax on consumers rather than run as a profitable business.

- The World Bank Report, 'Toward a Blue Economy: A Promise for Sustainable Growth in the Caribbean', which was presented in a lecture at the UWI last Tuesday evening, acknowledges that "the promise of growth is accompanied by increasing threats to the ocean environment ... . ... About 75 per cent of the region's coral reef is ... at risk from human activity and 85 per cent of wastewater enters the Caribbean Sea untreated."

- Over the last 10 years, humans have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century, with 50 per cent used just once and then thrown away. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times, accounting for 10 per cent of the global waste generated, with only a five per cent recovery.

- It takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade. Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated.

- Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in the oceans making up about 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces. Plastic constitutes approximately 90 per cent of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.

- Chemicals from plastics can be absorbed by the body, and 93 per cent of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA, a plastic chemical. Some of these compounds in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other human health effects.

- We've got a huge plastics problem. We've got an even bigger general environmental problem as the elites at Davos for the World Economic Forum have come to realise. Earth Day focuses on seeking solutions. But the future is not looking pretty at all. And Stephen Hawking's space migration solution, coming from a very bright man, is not a very bright option at all.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and