Real Green People is a monthly feature that puts a spotlight on folks who are being the green change they want to see in the world.
This column started in April 2020, which was the 50-year anniversary of the first Earth Day.
That month, the National Geographic Society commemorated the landmark anniversary with a double issue of their magazine with two covers: One cover said, "How We Saved the World: An Optimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070." When you flipped the magazine, there was another cover, "How We Lost the Planet: A Pessimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070."
Now, whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, these days, preserving the world as human habitat is clearly something to be concerned about.
But first, some good news: In wealthy countries, like the United States, the air, water, and land are cleaner than fifty years ago, endangered species now receive special protections, and the use of DDT and other dangerous chemicals has been banned.
I was too young to remember that first Earth Day, and I doubt there were many Earth Day activities in Millstadt, Illinois, where I grew-up, but for the last 50 years I have lived in a country where things have sort of felt like they were getting better.
Certainly, the collapse of civilization predicted by many ecologists in the 1970s, and portrayed memorably in the film "Soylent Green," has not come to pass. At least, not in the time frame that was predicted.
In 1970, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of "The Population Bomb," infamously predicted that the planet had only two years left to change course before all “further efforts [to save it] will be futile.”
While life has gone on in the decades since that first Earth Day, there are some very ominous clouds on the environmental horizon in 2020. And it’s not at all clear what the next 50 years will bring.
If you are an optimist, even acknowledging hard times ahead and that the planet will be warmer in 2070, you still believe that humans will find ways to limit carbon emissions, embrace our reliance on nature, and find a way to not only survive, but thrive.
If you are a pessimist… Well, I’m not even going to go there. Because, to quote Lester Brown, founder and director of the Worldwatch Institute, “It’s too late to be pessimistic.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, many, perhaps most days, I struggle to remain hopeful. I mean, some version of what we need to do to save the world as human habitat is nothing short of – change everything.
But here are some things that keep me hopeful:
- Scientists who aren’t giving up: Katherine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, is one of those people. Dr. Hayhoe, who got her PhD at the University of Illinois, has authored "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World," scheduled for release later this year.
- Young people who are pissed about the mess that they are inheriting: Greta Thunberg didn’t think that she’d start a revolution when she started her school strike for climate in 2018. But just a year later, 4 million people, many of them schoolchildren, staged a strike to call attention to the global climate emergency.
- And finally, everyday people doing their part to be the green change they want to see in the world: There are a lot of those folks in Southern Illinois and I have enjoyed featuring some of them over the last year. Hopefully, one or more of these real green people have inspired some readers.
Look, too many of us are passing the buck and copping out for lots of lame reasons. You might not be in power, but you can do the right things and lead by example, no matter your age, because if you are not doing the right thing, then you are part of the problem. And you never know when you doing the right thing might kick-start a revolution.
Like Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt the power of a few concerned citizens to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”