50th Earth Day: Compassionate concern for humans and their habitat

A measured response to COVID-19 must balance health and economic needs

Fifty years of weather have passed since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This was the same year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established and the federal Clean Air Act was promulgated.

Over the past five decades, since I rode my bike to school celebrating that inaugural day, the nation’s air quality has improved markedly. Particle and gaseous pollutants have been reduced tremendously, and ever-tightening health-based air-quality standards have been attained and maintained throughout the vast majority of the United States.

Since 1970, the climate has also changed along with its perception. Early on, with a declining world-wide average temperature, it was fear from a looming return to Ice Age conditions and mass starvation of an ever-increasing global populace that provoked calls for climate and population controls. Later, starting in the early 1980s, fears veered toward global warming, yet still too many people.

Today, the focused fear, besides that of the coronavirus global pandemic, remains on a climate crisis of excessive heat and inhabitants. But, is climate change, whether naturally or anthropogenically induced, necessarily a bad thing?

Without a doubt, the climate has changed, is changing and will continue to change. So, what else is new? The primary concern should be whether the climate is changing for better or worse. The secondary concern should be whether human activity has a long term, substantially negative impact on the change. And, if human activity definitely has such an impact, a tertiary concern should be whether human activity can be mitigated or eliminated from the climate equation.

The advancement of technology since the early 1970s brought about a wider distribution of available energy from abundant fossil fuel resources and with such progress much abject poverty has been alleviated. Yet, more than a billion people remain without access to reliable electricity that could bring comfort to their lives, eliminating the necessity of sullying wood and dung as their indoor cooking fuels.

With such discomforts of home largely in “pastoral” settings, so many people flock to life in the big city. Why? After all, the big city is where the climate is demonstrably warmer and so often less comfortable than the surrounding countryside.

Perhaps because, on balance, reliable electricity and a steady diet are so appealing. And perhaps that is why so many people from impoverished and unstable countries risk their lives to come to the most reliable country on Earth — the country that can be counted on for a consistent supply of abundant energy and food.

Those reliable conditions must be maintained during the current crisis. As Tucker Carlson of Fox television recently observed: “Our response to coronavirus could turn this into a far poorer nation. Poor countries are unhealthy countries, always and everywhere. In poor countries, people die of treatable diseases. In poor countries, people are far more vulnerable to obscure viruses, like the one we are fighting now. You want to keep Americans from dying before their time? Then don’t impoverish them.”

The coronavirus response must be measured and balanced. The focus must remain on the total person — addressing not only their health needs but their economic needs as well. After all, from a purely environmentalist perspective, people should be considered the most precious of all natural resources, worth maintaining and sustaining.

Keep the focus on people. Compassionate concern for humans and their habitat will go a long way to assuring a climate of comfort that celebrates both people and the planet for at least the next 50 years.

Photo adapted from one by sheri silver on Unsplash.