It’s just over two years since you joined our Little Blue Marble ride through the Milky Way and now that you can say things like “Bill Weir I want banana smoothie,” it’s time to learn the difference between “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Earth Day.”
Both are in April, but one of them has cake and Hopalong Andy and the other, frustration with humanity. Both involve balloons, only on Earth Day we get pick their deflated shards off a beach or festoon them around a protest sign on a march down Broadway.
I was a toddler your size when this “holiday” began, back when the skies of Los Angeles had the look of a neglected fishbowl and a river in Ohio held so much oily pollution that it turned the color of a rainbow and burst into flames.
The problems with an economy built on dirty fuels and planned obsolescence were so disgustingly obvious back in my boyhood that leaders from both political tribes agreed to create the Environmental Protection Agency and pass the Clean Air and Water Acts. As you learn more about the Congress of your birth, this will seem adorable.
But they were right. Those moves are the reason people can now see the San Gabriel mountains from downtown L.A. and fish in the Cuyahoga River and allow Donald Trump to say that there’s no need for environmental regulations because we have “the cleanest air, the cleanest water.”
By the 20th Earth Day in 1990, it was easier being green but the advice of the day included asking the post office to stop sending junk mail and to cut up your plastic six-pack rings to save seagulls from strangulation. Meanwhile, 163 million tons of trash were left by Earth Day festival goers in Central Park.
“‘These people didn’t leave as much behind as people who attend food fairs do,” said a sanitation official at the time. “It was an environmentally sensitive crowd.”
But while we were focused on our most obvious missteps as a species, none of us could see the trillions of tons of planet-cooking, reef-killing fossil fuel pollution pumping invisibly into our seas and sky. And the consequences were too slow-mo to notice.
A few weeks after you were born, we entered a hurricane season so active that we ran out of letters in the alphabet to name them and the storms that came a year later were even more costly.
On the day you learned to open kitchen cabinets, 15 Giant Sequoias trees that had been swaying with the California winds for 2,000 years couldn’t survive 2021.
And the week before your 2nd birthday, it was 50°F above normal near the North Pole. This should have been alarming enough, but at the same time, it was 70°F above normal near the South Pole. Since they are, by definition, polar opposites THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN and going forward at this rate, it can only get worse.
At the current carbon pollution levels, River, when you are my age science predicts that the average American city will feel like it has moved over 500 miles south. Anchorage could be warmer by 24°F and almost 360% wetter while Washington D.C. would have the heat and humidity of Greenwood, Mississippi. Tucson could jump 10°F while losing almost 40% of its already precious precipitation, putting it in the category of Mexican towns in the Sonoran Desert, and Jacksonville, Florida will feel like the northern border of Belize.
We don’t know how accurate these models will prove to be because, as the scientists like to say, we have no spare Earths to experiment with. This is it. You, your sister, your pal Matilda and the rest of the neighborhood scooter gang are the test subjects.
When you look back, you’ll probably wonder what we were doing with this information beyond recycling junk mail and seagull-safe six-packs, but you should know there were countless good souls ready to pitch in. “What can I do?” I’ve heard in many an airport and at some point I started responding with a list.
1. Get mad.
2. Get ready.
3. Get as many new friends as you can.
Step 1 is easy. First, examine your own “eco-anxiety” (a term that jumped in use by 4,290% in 2019) and then remind yourself that the scientists inside the biggest oil company in the world were eco-anxious back when “Saturday Night Fever” was in theaters. Internal documents show they predicted exactly what we are seeing now.
When you realize that their bosses in the C-suites decided not to tell anyone for decades, that anger will then be a renewable resource and could fuel any number of peaceful actions, from turning urban spaces green to statehouse lobbying to volunteering in places of environmental injustice. Since the climate crisis touches everything, everywhere, follow your passion to a point of action.