Earth Day, April 22, 2024 & Fifty-four years of environmental thinking


By Alvin (Al) Urquhart. (Alvin is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and was a founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon.)

A growing awareness of environmental problems precipitated the establishment of Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day celebrations were highly successful in alerting people to the dangers of smog, water pollution, toxic products, and other environmental problems that directly affected many humans. In the decade of the 1970s, rising environmental concerns stimulated the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act as well as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Popular environmental thought has continued to think of “the environment” as a thing that can be managed and for which solutions can be found.  However, in more recent times, the concept of environment has expanded to include ecology--the systemic processes of ecological thinking as they apply to the whole of the Earth’s natural world. Called the ecosphere or the biosphere, these complex, intricate, interconnected systems interact with human actions and are fundamental to understanding the human environment. 

In 1970, although unrecognized at the time of the first Earth Day, humans, for the first time, consumed more resources than the natural environment could provide. (See below:  World Ecological Footprint.) In other words, the demands of humans exceeded the carrying capacity of the natural world. With this knowledge, humans might realize that their relationship to the natural world was not limited to localized systems. Instead, the alterations by humans to nature affect the long-standing, stable networks of the ecosphere. The very meaning of the human environment has changed from local or regional to global concerns. 




Additional pressure on the global environment, or ecosphere, continues as croplands, grazing lands, and built-up lands have become more extensive; fishing grounds have expanded, and more forest products are consumed. Waste products from both manufacturing processing and post-consumption disposal also increasingly disrupt ecospheric networks.  The growth of atmospheric pollution by greenhouse gases (indicated in blue in the above diagram)  is the largest contributor to exceeding carrying capacity.  Even so, global warming is but one of many problem when the ecosphere is seen as environment. Environment, when considered as ecosphere, is too complex for successful human management. Legal, technical, or social processes that were successful in addressing environmental problems in 1970 are no longer adequate. Human actions disrupt long-established ecological networks because they are global, not national.

The following diagrams show that, at present, many of the Earth’s ecological processes trend towards greater instability. Thus the environmental state of humans becomes more precarious. Notice, especially, increases in greenhouse gases, in plant and animal extinctions, in the condition of soils, in ocean temperature and acidity, and in the melting of ice. (The diagrams are adaptations from Michael Dowd’s video lectures.)




Examples of Increases in Social and Natural Conditions




Increased consumption of goods and services greatly contributes to social and economic instability and associated environmental problems. The technologies that satisfy these demands depend on the extraction and burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels. Polluting greenhouse gases result. The two charts below clearly illustrate that both fossil fuel and greenhouse gas production have increased exponentially between 1970 and today. Global consumption of primary energy sources increased to an all-time high in 2023; and carbon dioxide emissions grew over 150%. As a result, the ecosphere has been greatly disrupted.


World Energy Consumption--1800-2019


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Carbon Dioxide Emissions  1970-2023 (+150%)


Three examples of ecospheric damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the emissions of greenhouse gases are illustrated in the following graphs.  








The world’s human population has more than doubled since the first Earth Day, in large part because technology based on burning of fossil fuels has produced the goods and services that serve  human health and longevity. Concurrently, the number of wild vertebrate species has decreased by 40% since the first Earth Day, in large part, because of increase human use of the natural environment.








In 2015, the total biomass of the world’s land mammals was composed 35% by humans, 63% by domesticated animals, and only 2% by wild animals. Domesticated animals (including humans) now dominate the Earth. The demands upon natural resources of this dominance has overwhelmed the carrying capacity of the Earth. The result is increased pollution of land, water, and air, and the extinction of many species of organic life.

Greenhouse gases are projected to increase; more fossil fuels are scheduled for extraction; and more goods and services are demanded by a growing population. As these processes grow, the natural environment will respond with greater changes, many of which will be called ‘natural disasters.’  Some physical limits are fast approaching ‘tipping points’ beyond which irreversible ecospheric changes will occur. Humans will then live in entirely new flows of ecospheric networks that are beyond their control. 

Environmental concerns of earlier Earth Days pale in comparison to the problems of 2024. Earth Day, 1970, was the last time the carrying capacity of Earth was equal to the demands humans placed on it. Today, no one knows how to reconcile the desires of humans with the consequences of their massive acts of environmental disruption. The efforts to correct the recognized environmental problems of the 1970s are inadequate to solve the global environmental problems of today. There are no solutions nor the ability to greatly diminish environmental problems as long as humans believe that they can control the ecosphere. The result is that we now live in a global environmental predicament with no solutions that allow the continuation of modern life as we know it. We must change from living and thinking in terms of material growth and progress to thinking of how we can adjust to an emotional life of declining goods and services. In the meantime, the ongoing questions become: 

“How can we best express our humanity while living in a world of ecospheric decline.” 

and, in the spirit of Earth Day,“What can we do, immediately, to slow ecospheric instability.” 





This article was written by Alvin (Al) Urquhart: 

Alvin is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and was a founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. With three degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, he was trained in anthropology, soil science, ecology, and geomorphology, as well as in his home department, geography. Al is also a member of the Job One for Humanity Advisory Board.


After collecting a list of thirty celebratory 2024 Earth Day events in the San Francisco Bay area, here are more of Al's thoughts. (If you want to see a list of the 2024 San Francisco Earth Day events that Alvin refers to, Google Earth Day events San Francisco 2024.)

"Mainly, the celebrations feature entertainment. The ‘earthy stuff’ is largely in the spirit of the 1970s and shows how little environmental thinking has changed in the last 54 years. I think Earth Day shouldn’t be a celebration of fun and games—as shown in the ads—but should emphasize how little humans have done to preserve the Earth's natural environment.

Let’s grieve over what we have done to the Earth, not celebrate the few and insufficient actions that we discovered decades ago. The magnitude of necessary actions to maintain (create) a good society and to preserve a thriving natural environment dwarf the concerns that are celebrated on Earth Day."


Special Update 4.19.24

Another organization has just written an important editorial about Earth Day 2024. It is called The radicalism of the first Earth Day. The editorial discusses the above-mentioned problems and adds unique information about how Earth Day has evolved in some not-too-nice ways.

It suggests that Earth Day is becoming less and less relevant for various reasons discussed in this article, including greenwashing. Click here to read this very thoughtful and necessary review of what Earth Day has become.




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  • sue robertson
    commented 2024-04-18 15:17:15 -0700
    Very devastating to think how as a species that functions like a plague, seems to operate in a seemingly endless trajectory heading to and causing so much suffering to Earth. One has to wonder whether there is a collective unconscious suicidal wish.
  • Lawrence Wollersheim
    published this page in Blog 2024-04-18 12:19:20 -0700
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