The spirit of Earth Day hasn’t changed, but its imperatives have evolved and are now more urgent. Three important steps must be taken for the next generation to inherit a world that can be managed.

The first Earth Day was covered for ten hours by The Today Show in 1970—a time when there was no cable television and network coverage meant a lot more than it does now. Nobody counted the exact numbers, but it is estimated there were at least 35,000 teach-ins around the United States. Congress took April 22 off in support of Earth Day, and two-thirds of Congress spoke at Earth Day events.

In the few years that followed, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were enacted. Eight months after that first Earth Day, the EPA was created. And all of this happened under Republican presidential administrations.

There was urgency, passion and clarity at the first Earth Day. I was in college then, and I still remember the piercing messages that created the first generation of environmentalists, to which I belong. A few commentaries stick in my mind. Author Stephanie Mills created a sensation when, in her valedictorian graduation speech, she vowed to have no children and called forecasts of a rosy future “a hoax.” She thought if the population continued to grow, “the facilities to accommodate that population must grow too.” In that future, she saw more dams and highways, fewer trees, and dirtier air.

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Denver high school students march on the first Earth Day, 1970. | Photo courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

On NBC’s mainstream Today, host Hugh Downs initiated earth week programming with: “Our Mother Earth is rotting with the residue of our good life. Our oceans are dying; our air is poisoned… Do we have the will to turn our way of life upside down? Because that is what it is going to take—to make personal, corporate and national sacrifices in order to keep this earth alive.”

My how the world has changed. The environment is no longer a bipartisan issue. Our media is carved up into so many channels it is hard to imagine an environmental event ever getting the attention of that first Earth Day. Instead of expanding government’s role in protecting the environment, today the trend is towards shrinking government’s role. What then should be our clarion call for Earth Day 2016? There are three things we need to do—and we need to do them now, without delay. Let’s begin with population.

In 1970 there were 3.7 billion people on the planet and Mills felt compelled to forsake motherhood. Today there are 7.4 billion, a number that climbs by over 200,000 every day. Forsaking reproduction in the developing would do little to address the problem. In Africa, we are seeing explosive population growth—so explosive that it fuels unrest, poverty and unprecedented environmental degradation. Business as usual will lead to almost 4 billion people in sub-Sahara Africa by 2100 (there are 1 billion now). Think about what that implies: having to provide in just sub-Saharan Africa for more people than the entire world had to provide for at the time of the first Earth Day.

There is a solution. Well-designed experiments show that vigorous support for family planning—free services, home visits by female family planning workers and communications—can make a difference of 1.5 births per female, even in the most traditional societies. Simply reducing births per woman by one-third of that, 0.5, would reduce by one billion the expected population in Sub-Sahara Africa—one billion! But every week, month or year we delay on this makes it that much harder and strains Africa’s resource base that much more.

Just as urgent as reducing African population growth is reducing global greenhouse gases. In this case, our actions in North America matter a lot. Here in the U.S., my personal preference is some form of charging companies for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (with provisions that remediate undue stress on those who cannot afford to pay for passed on costs), and making sure that no politician who dismisses global warming is taken seriously. If the United States cannot alter the public discourse on climate change as rapidly as it did for same-sex marriage, we will have trampled on the rights of our children and on the rights of everyone living today who is without the financial resource to adapt to climate distress. Our tactics may be up for debate, but the need for action is not a matter for debate.

Lastly, our cities are sprawling, raucous places where homelessness crises are common and transportation is often either jammed-up or life-threateningly polluting—or both—and where clean water and air can be in short supply. Cities will harbor 85% of the world’s population by 2100. In them, societal and public norms will be set that, in turn, determine what resources are extracted from the planet and in what ways. These cities can also be so devoid of nature that many scientists feel our urban youth are condemned to less happy and less rewarding lives (see my previous blog).

If we can get transportation, food and water right in cities, we can truly save the planet. This might seem impossible, but cities have always been engines of innovation. And cities are where voters really do connect to the leaders. They vote mayors in or out on the basis of what they do for the city. Best of all, actions to improve or enrich urban environments typically deliver visible benefits with almost no delay. When a river is restored in a city, residents immediately take to the riverwalks or running trails that are built. When a bike path is opened, it quickly becomes crowded. When urban gardens are planted, the diets and knowledge of food in a neighborhood change. Rapid feedbacks make positive steps in cities positively catalytic. Social norms and unsustainable behavior will not be easy to change, but when they do, the change will almost certainly begin in cities.

In 1970, everyone realized that the environmental movement is not about saving the world—it is about saving ourselves. How sad it would be if we were left with only dimmed memories of how beautiful and inspiring the planet once was. For this reason and for many other reasons, we must be impatient. Delays only make it harder because delays mean more people to provide for, more CO2 to deal with in the atmosphere, and less water to drink.

I do not think a bright future is a “hoax”, but it is going to be hard earned. The second environmental generation must make progress now so that the third environmental generation is not handed an almost impossible task. We need to be focused: slow Africa population growth, reduce greenhouse gases, and make our cities sustainable. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

REFERENCES: Bongaarts, J. 2016. Slow down population growth. Nature 530: 409-412. Rome, Adam. 2013. The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation. MacMillan.