As I learned from Google’s altered logo, today is the 37th Earth Day. I suppose some kind of celebration is in order. Perhaps that is most true because of how notable today is not. Back in 1970, it might have been a politically important act to recognize the importance of the environment. Now, it seems daft to think otherwise. Of course, that doesn’t mean that heightened environmental awareness has always translated into good environmental policy. Our society is far from sustainable, but the business of changing that is probably not the spectacular fare of street demonstrations and activist announcements.
When it comes to fairly localized environmental problems – like particulate emissions – it does seem to be a matter of societies becoming rich enough that they can afford to prioritize that instead of more pressing matters like food or security. Japan’s re-development after the Second World War is probably the most clearcut example. The first Earth Day certainly had something to do with the progession towards investing more resources in conservation and environmental management in the United States: helping to spawn the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. It seems reasonable to hope that a similar progression will occur in newly developed places in coming decades. Of course, that leaves the diffuse and difficult problems like climate change and fisheries management to be tackled multilaterally somehow. That may well require a progression in politics akin to what transpired 37 years ago.