Earth Day every day: Four things we must do to be better Earthlings

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: April 22, 2024

The very first Earth Day helped launch the modern environmental movement, but humanity’s onslaught on the planet is sadly worse than ever before because we’ve failed to tackle the root problems. Let’s explore these issues as well as four cognitive shifts necessary to building a better future.

Five decades of insignificant progress

Today is Earth Day the biggest international observance day for the environment. First observed in 1970, the day aims to increase awareness of the urgent need to improve environmental protections. While awareness has certainly increased over the past five decades, our environmental crises have continued to escalate because we haven’t addressed the underlying issues.

Root problem #1: We’ve overrun the planet

In 1970, our global population was around 3.7 billion – less than half today’s population of 8.1 billion and counting. Concern over rapidly mounting population pressure was gaining momentum in the 70s, thanks to seminal scientific warnings, notably Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb published in 1968, and The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth released in 1972.

Many governments in the 70s and 80s took these warnings seriously, and funding domestic and international family planning briefly became a policy priority. These voluntary efforts helped empower countless people and aided in slowing global population growth. Funding for family planning and women’s empowerment has been stagnating in recent decades, however, and as a result, we are sadly still a long way from achieving population stabilization.

Root problem #2: Many of us consume too much

The other key factor in our escalating environmental crises is the growth in per person consumption of resources and products. Overconsumption in high-income nations and among the richest people, such as of fossil fuels, meat, and plastics, is driving greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, and pollution, among other things.

As developing countries escape poverty, their consumption rates grow rapidly as well. In fact, the world’s lowest-income countries will need to massively increase their consumption if we are to end poverty for good. This makes it all the more important to phase out excessive consumption in the Global North, and to end global population growth through empowering means as soon as possible.

Root problem #3: We are misusing technology

While technological innovation has the capacity to create positive change, most of the ways in which we use technology are damaging the environment. Industrialization and the rise of modern agriculture, for example, have hugely amplified our destructive impact on the planet.

Necessary cognitive shifts

Most environmental policies so far have just been bandaids on bullet wounds – vastly inadequate to achieve zero emissions, conserve biodiversity, sustainably manage resources, and clean up our environment. To avert catastrophic climate change and safeguard life on Earth, we must tackle ecological overshoot, which requires transformative changes to our economies and societies. Here are four mindset shifts required to put these changes within easier reach and make us more worthy of our Latin name, Homo sapiens (which translates to wise human).

1) Scrap the notion of human supremacy

Despite long-running conservation efforts, we are annihilating biodiversity faster than ever before in human history. Disregard for other species’ right to exist and thrive stems from the widespread belief that we are somehow entitled to dominate the planet. Popular monotheistic religions helped foster this worldview (e.g., the Bible verse “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”). We are quick to accuse animal populations of “overpopulating” when they start posing the slightest inconvenience, but turn a blind eye to our own astronomical numbers and the devastating impact they are having on the environment.

In recent decades, the belief in human exceptionalism has reached new extremes, with billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos calling for colonization of the rest of the solar system. To be better stewards of the Earth, we must practice a little more humility and learn to value and respect other species and the natural ecosystems that sustain us all. Let’s not forget that we are part of nature, not above it.

2) Accept planetary limits

Another rather important fact we tend to forget is that our planet is finite. Mainstream economic systems are designed to keep growing forever, propped up by an endlessly increasing population. This is simply not feasible, as evidenced by our rapidly diminishing resources, including the most vital ones, such as freshwater.

History is replete with warnings of the danger of ignoring limits to growth – the collapse of Easter Island being one of the most famous examples. Some argue that because we have so far not experienced collapse at a global level, it can’t happen, which is nonsense. Abandoning the pursuit of infinite growth is a prerequisite to a sustainable society.

3) Prioritize long-term interests over short-term ones

Governments have failed to take meaningful action on the climate crisis because they prioritize short-term profits over long-term benefits. Despite pledges to cut emissions, these are still increasing and governments are still funding new oil and gas developments because this is more profitable than switching to renewable energy.

This short-termism is undermining the right of current and future generations to a livable future. If we don’t start prioritizing people over profits, large parts of the Earth will become uninhabitable due to runaway global warming, resource depletion, and ecosystem collapse. Caring for our children and grandchildren means thinking ahead and making less selfish decisions.

4) Foster empathy

All of the above necessary shifts require empathy – for other humans, for other species, and for future generations. The worst, most dangerous leaders are those who lack empathy, because they don’t shy away from causing harm to further their own selfish goals and ambitions.

Humans have an extraordinary capacity for empathy, but to create highly empathetic decision-makers, we need to teach and foster kindness and compassion from an early age. Research shows that empathy can be taught and cultivated, yet this most precious of values remains neglected in mainstream education and workplace settings.

A more empathetic society is key to building impetus for meaningful change, fostering collaboration between countries, and tackling our most pressing crises. Let’s get to it.