David Bouchier: Delicate Planet

Apr 19, 2021

Earth Day was established in 1970, and that was no accident. We were just beginning to see the Earth in a new way — from space. It is one thing to know intellectually that we live on a ball of dirt floating in the middle of infinite nothingness — it was quite another thing to see it as we saw it in those first photographs from the moon landings. Suddenly it was all too clear that this was it — this was all we had or would ever have by way of real estate, and perhaps we should take care of it.

Earth Day arrives on Thursday this week, and it’s increasingly difficult to know what we can or should do to care for our battered planet. It has become a cliché to say that we can only save ourselves by saving the Earth – but how? This time last year I speculated that the decision had, in a way, been taken out of our hands by the pandemic. The coronavirus accomplished what half a century of ecological education and propaganda had failed to accomplish. Our lives were rearranged exactly as they should be, from an ecological point of view. Long-distance travel is way down, and perhaps the most striking evidence of our changed lifestyle comes from those images of global air pollution viewed from space. The great dark clouds of smog over the big cities have thinned out, and in some cases almost faded away. People in Beijing and Delhi can breathe again — through a mask of course, but that’s a small price to pay.

This may have sounded rather ironic when I first suggested it a year ago, but it wasn’t completely wrong. Rates of pollution have slowed down, birth rates have slowed down, everything has slowed down, and our loss could be seen as the planet’s gain. That’s the good news. But it certainly wasn’t good news for everybody. So many people have suffered badly from the pandemic, economically, socially and psychologically, that there is an almost irresistible eagerness to cancel out all the restrictions and disciplines, re-inflate the economy, and get back to our “normal” high-pollution, high consumption lifestyle. We all have things we desperately want to do, whether it’s traveling, or socializing or simply going to the store without a mask. But this seems likely to take us right back to where Earth Day started in 1970.

If Earth has a problem, it is us. There seem to be more wildfires, floods, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes than ever, quite apart from the pandemic. It’s almost as if the planet is trying to get rid of us, like a dog scratching off fleas. Even the animals are restless. Rats are taking over New York, Haifa in Israel is full of wild boar, bears and elk have appeared in cities where they have no business to be, and parts of Australia have been overrun by hordes of mice. We read about invading gangs of mountain goats in Wales, pumas in Chile, monkeys in Thailand and deer everywhere. It seems that the creatures are reclaiming their old territories, planning for the future, staging a kind of extinction rebellion in reverse. “You can go,” they seem to be telling us, “We’ll get on fine without you.” And, apart from a few spoiled domestic cats, they can and, if we are not very careful, they will.

Copyright: David Bouchier