Our journey home: An Earth Day 2020 challenge

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Jacobs

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Fifty years ago today, unbeknownst to me at the tender age of 22 months, the first Earth Day gave voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. 

Initiated by Gaylord Nelson, the two-term "conservation governor" of Wisconsin who was later elected to the U.S. Senate, the first Earth Day mobilized 20 million Americans – 10 percent of the total U.S. population at the time -- who took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Thousands of colleges and universities joined them in organizing protests against environmental deterioration. 

Five decades later, as we mark this milestone, it's a fitting time to ask: Have we made enough progress?

The indefatigable Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030 and one of my climate action heroes, offered an insightful answer to this question at the recent CarbonPositive Conference and Expo in downtown Los Angeles, which I attended just before most of us came under stay-at-home orders. 

In his keynote address, Ed eloquently summarized the climate crisis state of affairs. The good news: following a historic decoupling of GDP growth and emissions in the U.S., greenhouse gas emissions have plateaued despite significant economic growth between 2005 and 2019 -- and we are now at the beginning of the same decoupling globally. The bad news: we are at the center of the climate crisis and no longer just anticipating it. As Greta Thunberg has so aptly stated, "Our house is on fire."

How we should react to this crisis is both simple and complex. Just as if we were in an actual burning house, we would escape first, and with the help of the fire department and other trained resources, save others, while letting go of everything else. Crises bring clarity about what matters most.

The complexity arises whenever we ask about the root causes instead of just treating symptoms. The current global COVID-19 outbreak is a stark case in point. Considering that many of the essential workers who are caring for the infected do not have health insurance themselves and lack basic protections to do their job, we might question whether the system itself is working. This is especially apparent when considering recent data that reveals a person's chances of survival depends largely on the color of their skin.

With devastating clarity, COVID-19 is illuminating the perils of ignoring known threats and exposing the human cost of having allowed inequity and inequality to rise to current levels.

The serenity prayer, the oft-quoted insight by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, offers helpful direction: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Environmentalist Paul Hawken, author of the 2017 book "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming," has lived according to this guidance all along. 

Speaking at IIT in Chicago last September, he suggested we view our role in addressing the climate crisis as "coming home." The atmosphere, much like the virus, does not just cooperate with our wishes. 

It does not care what we think or do. Once we realize this, a binary choice is entirely ours: do we let the crisis-induced threats define us by allowing fear and anxiety to paralyze us, or do we get to work by acting on the opportunities directly in front of us, in the present moment? Only by doing the latter can we begin the journey home.

To collectively address the climate crisis, we need all the technological solutions we can imagine, combined with bold government action. But what we also need, in equal measure, is a shift toward social innovation: the realization that in the end, the only thing we have direct control over is ourselves. 

We must become comfortable with mental and emotional surrender -- away from any regret or anxiety -- in order to find the place of calm and clarity that will show us how to proceed with energy and joy.

As I consider my own path forward, I'm inspired by Hawken's observation that we can think of the climate crisis as happening to us, or we can think that it is happening for us. 

Climate action starts with attitude. Our move. 


Tom Jacobs is co-founder of Architects Advocate for Action on Climate Change and a Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education member.

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