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Voices from the Flats – Earth Day

Earth Day – time to invest in sustainable future

By Rick Steiner


Today is Earth Day: a good time to assess the condition of our life-sustaining home planet. On this, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that the global environment continues to deteriorate. For decades, our “ecological footprint” – the environmental impact of the global economy – has exceeded what the Earth can sustainably provide, now by over 50%, and our ecological debt is growing.

Today more than a billion people are malnourished, thousands of children will die from preventable causes, and we will lose thousands of acres of forest and dozens of species to extinction. Water tables are falling due to over pumping for irrigation and urban use, land productivity is declining from erosion and overgrazing, toxic contaminants are found in every corner of the world, and oceans are overexploited and polluted. Carbon emissions from our use of fossil energy are dangerously altering climate, accelerating the loss of sea ice and glaciers, rising sea levels, devastating heat waves, floods, droughts, intense storms, and threats to species and ecosystems. In many semiarid regions, grain harvests are declining, hundreds of villages have been abandoned due to lack of water and encroaching deserts, and thousands of climate refugees are on the move. As the gap between rich and poor widens, food scarcity and soaring prices have caused food riots, and there are now dozens of failed states with no ability to provide for their citizens – fertile grounds for terrorism.

By most measures we are a civilization in collapse, and business-as-usual is a certain course to disaster.

But the good news is that a growing number of people, including policymakers, now recognize the severity of the environmental crisis and are determined to fix it before it is too late. Many individuals around the world are adjusting their lifestyles to minimize their own ecological footprint. But while important, individual responsibility alone will not be enough to reverse environmental decline. For this, we urgently need aggressive government intervention. Grassroots organizations around the world are pushing governments and industry to redefine global security in terms of environmental and social sustainability, rather than in outdated military terms. But so far the response of governments has been insufficient. We need more from governments, and we need it immediately.

The Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown has outlined an emergency “Plan B” effort to save civilization, consisting of four main components: stabilizing climate, restoring ecosystems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty.

To stabilize climate we have to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2020 by increasing energy efficiency (the U.S. wastes over half of the energy it consumes), and shifting to low-carbon renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and nuclear disaster in Japan underscore the urgent need to shift to safe, clean energy. The key to the sustainable energy transition is to tax carbon, and shift government subsidies from fossil energy (currently $500 billion/year) to sustainable energy. Such a tax and subsidy shift will facilitate growth in more energy efficient lighting, transportation, buildings, and electrical power generation.

Restoring Earth’s ecosystems requires expanded effort in forest protection, tree planting, soil conservation, low-impact agriculture, rangeland restoration, ocean conservation, recycling, more efficient irrigation and water use, and biodiversity protection.

Stabilizing population and eradicating poverty require expanding our social support in developing countries, including universal primary education; adult literacy; school lunch programs; aid to women, infants, and children; family planning and reproductive health; and universal basic health care. Plan B estimates that an additional $185 billion / year is needed to achieve its goals.

We can either invest another $185 billion/year now, or the biosphere will continue to unravel and we’ll consign future generations to a world of unimaginable chaos, conflict, and deprivation. Compared to the annual U.S. military budget of $720 billion, annual world military spending of $1.6 trillion, and the exorbitant future costs of not changing course, Plan B would be the smartest investment we would ever make.

We know the risks, and we know how to avoid them. The only question is whether we will act in time. This decade is our last best chance to change course toward a sustainable future. Let’s hope we rise to this historic challenge.


Rick Steiner was a professor at the University of Alaska from 1980 – 2010, and now directs Oasis Earth ( from Anchorage Alaska.



19 Responses to “Voices from the Flats – Earth Day”
  1. Man_from_Unk says:

    The oceans, seas and rivers are also part of The Earth. Their inhabitants are varied from whales to fish. Those need to be protected as well. Salmon are sustainable, yet they are in decline all over the State. Yes, they will come back as before but not without help from the resource managers.

  2. auni says:

    Sorry to go off topic here, but Maddow had a piece last night about the Catherine Ferguson Academy. It’s a school for pregnant teens in Detroit. It is going to be closed. It’s successful in getting girls through high school and on to college. With all the anti-abortion talk here is a chance to help girls who choose to keep their babies and what to the fools decide to do–shut er’ down. If you go to the Catherine Ferguson Academy site you will sign a petition to sign. The girls staged a sit-in and were hauled off to jail. Please check it out.

  3. Hope says:

    “Time to invest in sustainable future.” Yes, it’s time, alright. And past time. Where should I invest? How? WHAT should I invest? What’s going to do the most good? Here’s where knowing becomes numbing. WHAT can we be DOING that will make any kind of difference? What can I do NOW and every day that actually does make any difference at all? Is there something? Anything? At all?


  4. GoI3ig says:

    I hope everyone (in Alaska anyway) caught the story on KTUU News tonight about the people out in Palmer/Sutton area who can’t get home loans due to a pending mine operation in the area. The mere specter of a mine is enough to make it a risky proposition for lenders.

    The bean counters know that the mine will destroy the local ecology, pollute the area, and probably damage the water table. Too bad people can’t figure that out with Pebble Mine.

  5. Zyxomma says:

    I live in New York City, which means that I live like a bee in a hive. We share living spaces, public transportation, and walk everywhere. In my apartment, all the light bulbs are full-spectrum CFL, and when they finally burn out, I’ll get LED to replace them. Although Con Edison delivers my electricity, I purchase it from a wind power ESCO. I’m careful about my water use. I wear vintage clothing, and when I buy new, I buy sustainable and organic.

    I spent this Earth Day on the fifth floor of Bloomingdale’s SoHo, where my love’s company, The GreenShows NY Eco Fashion Week, brought in ten sustainable fashion and accessories designers for a pop-up shop. We’re there through tomorrow, April 23rd.

    I was in school for the first Earth Day. My science teacher gave us two options: use the class for a study hall, or have a conversation about the environment. She and I discussed Silent Spring and other environmental issues; the rest of my class took the study hall.

    Health and peace.

  6. seattlefan says:

    I’m with you Mr. Steiner. If not now, when. Great post.

    I remember the first Earth Day back in in early 70’s. I was in high school and we were all encouraged to participate. I lived in Colorado at the time and there was a big march on the capital in Denver. I was just a junior in high school back then and couldn’t participate in that but much to the chagrin of my very Republican parents I chose to walk to school that day (and many days after). It was a small gesture but in my “high school” mind it was huge. The coverage of Earth Day back then was HUGE and I felt like I made an impact. It is so sad that Earth Day has become a joke to the “right” and has lost it’s momentum in our politically bought media. Thanks for all you are doing.

    Peace and Hope for our planet!

  7. AKjah says:

    Once again a great piece by you Mr Rick. I may be the EEYORE of the crowd. I do believe the theocratic,greedy,fascist,growing mass, to be too far gone to ever find the where with all to see reason.
    I feel we must hope that our connected spirit will find the nonphysical bond that we all hold. Let this planet heal from all the wounds. My hope is that we can avoid violence. But that is what people know and that is what we will see.
    In the mean time we can enjoy a EARTH DAY tune


  8. Ivan says:

    the link to ricks oasis-earth at the end of the post above is bad. it leaves out the –
    the correct link is

  9. Frosty says:

    Excellent article. You forgot the ever expanding use of GM seeds to produce Frankenfood. If any of these organizations can find a way to challenge the theocratic plutocracy we live in, then Nature has a chance to recover while humans still inhabit the planet. The other scenario is a recovery of the planet once humans are gone…

  10. AKPetMom says:

    It’s rather interesting that we look at other populations, such as lynx, who are dependent upon the cyclical abundance of hares to sustain them, in a different way than we look at ourselves, humans, and what it takes to sustain us. Just because humans are the predominant species now, with what we consider to be superior intelligence which allows us to “engineer” our food and energy supply, we think that our populations cannot be subject to environmental controls beyond our capability to engineer. As the Earth’s population of humans grows, and our consumption of energy and food grows with, we may just find ourselves feeling what the Lynx feel when the hares become scarce. We are no different than any other life form on this planet, in fact, we do ourselves a great injustice when we choose to not follow the lessons of what we consider “lesser creatures”. We humans with our big brains are just as subject to the vagaries of Nature as are our non-human compatriots on this planet.

    • mike from iowa says:

      Not to be argumentative,but, hares and mice and voles populations don’t depend on lynx,rather the lynx population depends on boom or bust cycles for small species of prey animals. Smaller rodents and hares do have a cyclical existence-I don’t know if anyone really understands why. In boom years more predators can be born and in bust years less predators are born and even less survive. Natures cycles may be affected more and more by environmental happenings and we can see obvious effects pretty easily. Long term cumulative effects will be harder to see and even harder to convince certain peoples that the need to change may be passing us by. Mother Earth will trend the way the environment dictates and only men and beavers can alter their world to suit their lives. I hardly don’t expect to see any right-minded beavers working sise by side with nutjobs.

  11. michigander says:

    Thank you Rick Steiner for speaking out for our world. Perfect article for Earth Day (o:

    And is it just me or does this seem like plain ole common sense? Why oh why do so many politicians lack in that area….)o:

    • ibwilliamsi says:

      Why, oh why? I could go on and on… but I won’t. We all know why. At least all of us who aren’t spouting off about “commonsense solutions” know why.

    • leenie17 says:

      Because the almighty $$$ ALWAYS trumps common sense.

      Either it comes from their own personal investments in corporations that make profits from keeping the status quo OR it comes from the pockets of the CEOs who own those corporations who keep the campaign coffers filled to the brim.

  12. fromthediagonal says:

    Mr. Steiner, from the time I read your first post, you have had my admiration. For the sake of future generations, please continue to speak out, and take my gratitude for doing so.

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