Najib Saab. 22/04/2020

On 22 April half a century ago, 20 million Americans took to the streets, demanding serious action to protect the environment and preserve nature. This uprising, which remains the largest mass event in the world, triggered changes far beyond the United States borders. Earth Day, as it has been named, became an annual event across 192 countries. Its launch in 1970 coincided with other initiatives that prompted the birth of the modern global environmental movement. After the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created, and it still leads international environmental work to this date. In the same year, the Club of Rome published its milestone report, “The Limits to Growth,” which warned that the earth’s ability to provide sustainable resources and absorb waste for the increasing billions of people is dwindling, and is in fact on the way to reach its limits.

The grim outlook surrounding the first Earth Day and emanating from the Club of Rome report predicted an impending doomsday scenario. It warned that, by the year 2000, population explosion and uncontrolled consumerism will lead to depletion of resources causing famine, pollution, and subsequent mass extinction.

Skeptics viewed these extremist expectations with a great deal of wariness, sometimes bordering on cynicism. It is true that these expectations were not entirely fulfilled, but it can be argued that they were, to a large extent, behind slowing the pace of deterioration. The alarming warnings raised in the seventies were in fact the main driver of positive change. Many governments listened to the voice of science and the public, and enacted laws for clean water and air, as well as protecting wildlife and safeguarding natural resources. International environmental organizations, ministries of environment, environmental research centers and thousands of civil society organizations were also created as a result. Ultimately, dozens of international environmental protection treaties and agreements were enacted. Therefore, the extreme warning of 50 years ago clearly helped to slow, if not fully avert, the doomsday future they prophesied.

Rather than focusing solely on increasing production, fear of starvation prompted added attention to food security and dealing seriously with uncontrolled population increase. Recent years have witnessed the beginning of a revolution in agriculture, introducing the concepts of efficiency, improved productivity, and changing consumption patterns as essential elements to achieve food security. In response to the scientists warning about the depletion of oil and gas supplies in few decades, human ingenuity developed renewable sources of energy, alongside cleaner and more effective methods of energy production and use. Resource efficiency became a serious pursuit, and whereas economic growth figures were the only criteria for measuring progress, sustainable development became the order of the day.

This, however, does not mean that all goals have been achieved, and that the world is in its heyday. The novel Coronavirus pandemic may be the strongest reminder that human supremacy will always be limited by the laws of nature. It has become evident that one main cause of the spread of the deadly virus is due to environmental manipulation and transgressing the permissible and safe limits of the relationship between man and nature, and specifically humans and animals.

Fifty years ago, pollution that directly affected human health, alongside depletion of water and energy sources, diminishing food supplies, deforestation and desertification, and deteriorating seas, were the main future challenges. Despite some progress in addressing these threats, the work is far from being done. However, these are no longer the only challenges, and the need to implement energy efficiency and the transition to renewable energy is no more limited to the preservation of natural resources or preventing air pollution related to human health. It now transcends to the most serious of challenges in history, climate change, which threatens with faster, fiercer and more widespread effects and consequences than any pandemic.

That’s why this year’s Earth Day theme, climate action, could not have been more momentous. It is certain that the effects of a pandemic such as Covid-19 will be exacerbated by a changing climate, leading the infection to spread to places it did not reach before. This is especially significant to the Middle East region, as studies have repeatedly shown that it is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially rising sea levels, drought and water scarcity.

When scientists predicted fifty years ago that city dwellers would have to wear face masks as a safeguard against air pollution, they were accused of exaggeration and even madness. The Coronavirus pandemic should be a lesson that motivates serious and urgent action on climate change, lest it take us by surprise, as Corona did.

Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect and act in order to bring about resurrection to this endangered planet.