Today is Earth Day, 2023. Since attending my first Earth Day event in Boston in 1990 (a full generation after the first Earth Day in 1970), some aspects of the environmental movement have changed, some have stayed the same. Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic, but the problems that we faced in 1990 seemed simpler. We were advocating for clean water, clean air, and wildlife protection; the solutions weren’t easy, but they seemed quite clear.

10,000 Maniacs and Michael Stipe performed at Earth Day 1990, Central Park, NYC

Back then my friends and I sprawled out with our picnic blankets on the Charles River Esplanade, listening to music and speeches from the stage. That particular event doesn’t happen anymore, but there are other, smaller ones like it in various smaller venues around the city. I don’t think individual servings of water were sold in plastic bottles back then; aluminum cans and glass bottles were still in style. Electric cars were futuristic, and solar panels were uncommon.

At that time did my friends and I have real optimism and hope that the world would someday be cleaner and greener? I think so. With the promise of recycling, species and habitat protection laws, and the cleanup of rivers and lakes, especially here in the USA, it seemed within reach. Perhaps it was my naïve optimism of my early 20s, but I recall feeling that humanity was making linear progress on all fronts (environmental issues, human rights, etc.) After all, humans had learned from our mistakes of the past, right? Hmmm.

Now that I’m a middle-aged woman (actually, let’s be real, I’m past the “middle”), reality has set in and it feels harsh. Instead of an upward trajectory of progress, it seems like the US and the world have taken two steps back instead of forward. Air and water pollution still exist (a nod to Flint, Michigan and East Palestine, Ohio.) Plastic use is more, not less, common, despite the fact that we’ve known for years that 1) most plastic is not recycled, and 2) plastics threaten human health and ecosystems; for example, there are enormous patches of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean.

What’s new under the sun?

For those under the age of 40 who are reading this post, it may be hard to imagine what a day in the life was like for the masses back in 1990, when there was no Internet or social media. Now, because of the ever-present Internet in our lives, our various screens are bombarded with news of climate-fueled natural disasters happening somewhere in the world, nearly every day.

There have always been life-threatening droughts, floods, heat waves, and cold spells, but nowadays the cumulative effect of them seem to portend an existential threat to humans and habitats. It’s abundantly clear that no single nation can mitigate global climate change, therefore some nation states feel a duty to influence other nation states (never an easy task). Does that mean it’s not enough to just “think globally, act locally?”

The terms that are bandied about have changed; for example, “global warming” wasn’t a common phrase in 1990; it had been recently coined in 1989, when Al Gore was a Senator. Of course, it’s no longer “global warming,” it’s “climate change.”

Technologies and policies are complicated

The conversations (or in most cases, arguments!) are more complex and technical than saving old-growth forests and the owls that live in them. Nowadays there are several buzz words and catch phrases, like decarbonization credits, carbon storage, and carbon sequestration. The debates may be more or less emotional and fever-pitched as they were in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but the topics have changed. Today, Jane and John Doe argue on NextDoor, Facebook, and other social media sites about various climate-related topics: gas stoves, mini-split heat pumps, electric cars, and wind and solar power vs. coal and nuclear power.

For many people, it can be a bit overwhelming to comprehend the facets of a particular technology, along with the pros and cons of its ecological and economic impacts; realistically, how many citizens have time for that? Whether deciding on a technology, policy, or product, we may face a bewildering stack of information and opinions, and it can be difficult to sift through and separate the wheat from the chaff; we have to admit that sometimes a quick Google search online is not enough to see all sides of an issue. Most choose to let experts or government agencies to figure out the best solutions, while others feel obligated to educate themselves so they can make the right choice when voting for a candidate or trying to make an eco-friendly purchasing decision.

The art of listening

The political landscape, especially here in the US, is much more polarized, making it harder than ever to reach consensus on the best approaches to “reduce our carbon footprint” (another phrase that wasn’t around 33 years ago.)  Social media sites use AI-powered algorithms to feed us what our online behaviors suggest we want to see; as a result, we see more from like-minded people and, before we realize it, our social bubbles have become echo chambers that isolate us from people who have other opinions and information.

The art of listening and the art of diplomacy are becoming lost arts. There have always been debates about various issues, but the climate change topic is particularly, um, heated. As with many other topics, discussions of environmental issues are often filled with rage rather than reason. There are more arguments than dialogues, with people often engaging in ad hominem attacks and name-calling (Climate change denier! Socialist!) rather than discussing the problems and various solutions. It’s online judgment day almost everywhere, with fact-fighting and accusations. Heck, in this contentious political climate there is a good chance that someone reading this blog post will argue with me about it.

Disagreements and debates are part of the democratic process, but angry conflicts impede progress. So, on this Earth Day, I’m not arguing for any particular solutions. I’m just pleading for more peace and diplomacy in our discussions about how to protect our precious blue planet.

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