This morning, Facebook presented us the Happy Earth Day image you see above: a diverse assemblage of people working together to nourish a giant plant via a similarly giant watering can. The subtext reads: “Today, let’s think about our impact and make a positive change.” I started thinking about my impact…and couldn’t stop: I make impacts in all sorts of ways I know, and probably in more ways I don’t know. Which impacts shall I think about the most?, I wondered. Which positive changes shall I prioritize?
Then I read an opinion piece in The New York Times (“Frozen Life in Wartime Syria“), about how rare it is to taste a tomato—and other, bigger things people have endured in their numb existence over the last five years. It reminded me of another recent NYT opinion piece from afar, where Thomas Friedman wrote about the possible impacts of climate change on subsistence agriculture in northwest Senegal, and the resultant mass exodus of working-age males. This one reminded me of the fate awaiting some of those migrants: another NYT story of around 500 migrants who “may have” died at sea—our connections with their families pulsing so faintly that the story apparently proved difficult to validate.
So, this is our Earth on Earth Day. How shall I consider my impact and make a positive change for this Earth, not the Earth that thrives via a giant watering can but an Earth that presents such mute tragedy? The conventional, Earth Day answer would be something like: live sustainably. And, on some measures, I suppose I do: I commute to and from work on my bike, I recycle, I certainly don’t do my fair share of consuming. But, how could I live sustainably in a way that would make a bigger positive change?
The answer to this may involve a different question: what would a sustainable Earth even look like? I struggle to answer this question, but at least by my measure it would not include a Syria or a Senegal in their current state. And it certainly would not include so many faceless humans whose suffering we can’t even verify.
Maybe sustainability is not the right answer to the question. Indeed, it seems that, by Google Trends search results at least, interest in sustainability grew strongly over the last half of the first decade of the 21st century, then peaked around 2010 and has declined a bit since:
[trends h=”400″ w=”800″ q=”sustainability” geo=”US”]
For an environmental scholar, this trend over time reminds us of the famous Mauna Loa Keeling curve, in that it exhibits periodicity, dipping up and down. (The Keeling curve demonstrates a secular rise in atmospheric CO2.) Interestingly, US search results on sustainability generally peak each October and April. I cannot explain October (school assignments? Halloween candy guilt?), but one possibility for April would be…Earth Day, quite a big event across the country.
I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe people thinking about their impacts and how to make a positive change—i.e., people celebrating Earth Day—search for guidance via sustainability. Yet maybe it’s getting harder for others, too, to avoid thinking about Syria and Senegal on Earth Day, thus the slight wane of interest.
This is all speculative. Yet it resonates with what Swyngedouw (2010), citing Žižek and others, calls a “post-political” view of a sustainable Earth. On this cynical view, a sustainable Earth is one in which we can temporarily set aside the politics of a Syria or a Senegal, and water our plants.
So, on this Earth Day I opt for gratitude, for the lush life I and loved ones live—yet remain mindful of what may never show up on a Facebook graphic on this particular day.