I have never missed an Earth Day. That’s only because I was fourteen on April 22, 1970 when the whole thing started. I generally don’t make a big deal out of the annual observance, any more than Presidents Day or College Department Chairs Day (there must be one, right?). It’s not that I don’t care about the Earth. We go way back together. Before it was about climate change, we called it the Ecology Crisis. And before the first Earth Day, we promoted conservation of natural resources. I have the merit badge. I was probably 14 years old when I composed a genuine pollution protest song with pitiful lyrics: “The trees are dying/The seas are crying.” One can imagine a sardonic wince from Greta Thunberg.
In this contribution to the CSR Blog, I shall describe subsequent memories of Earth Days and my evolving embrace of ‘for which it stands.’
There was barely a mention of climate and modern-day environmental issues in my undergraduate geology courses taken in the middle 1970s. We learned nothing about ocean circulation and the connections between earth, sea, sky and life. Like the merit badge, a major motivation for learning geology was to find and extract oil, gas, coal, and ores out of the ground as efficiently and economically as possible. We learned about Ice Age landforms like moraines, kames, and eskers, calibrated in geologic time using carbon-14. These features revealed cycles of global cooling and warming. Humans were living in a period of interglacial warmth and the money was on preparing for the next cold spell.
My first introduction to the link between atmospheric greenhouse gases and planet warming was in Carl Sagan’s first best-selling book published in 1973, The Cosmic Connection. I read it during the summer after my freshman year. In the chapter, “Venus as Hell,” Sagan described how the searing heat experienced on the surface of our planetary sister (800°F/426°C) was due to the run-away greenhouse effect of a carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere. He hinted at a similar scenario for future Earth if burning fossil fuels continued unabated. Any dystopian future seemed so far off; I don’t recall being very concerned.
There wasn’t much to read in the 1970s about the faith and environment from the Christian bookstore, either. An exception was Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man. While some national leaders who wore their faith on their sleeves treated nature as something to be exploited, Schaeffer wrote: “…for the Christian, there is an intrinsic value [in nature]. The value of a thing is not in itself autonomously, but because God made it. It deserves this respect as something which was created by God, as man himself has been created by God (ch. 4).” His metaphor of the church as “pilot plants” for demonstrating creation care is a memorable recommendation that went largely ignored by the church.
At the age of fourteen years and ten Earth Days (you will just have to go along with me on this), I had an office at a major oil company in Texas. It wasn’t all “Drill Baby Drill.” Most oil geologists got into geology because we loved the earth. One might compare the attitude to sport hunters who by no means want to see their prey go extinct. They just have a different management philosophy from most environmentalists. Besides, if we didn’t satisfy the global demand for energy, modern life as we know it would grind to a screeching halt. Right? Yes, it would.
Even in the late 1970s, the oil companies knew that fossil fuel effluent could warm the atmosphere. I didn’t work for Exxon, but it was common industry knowledge that their offshore Natuna prospect in the South China Sea contained so much carbon dioxide that producing gas from it would bring global calamity. We were shown seismic profiles across the Natuna prospect in our training. Seismic profiles are like CT-scans of the shallow Earth’s crust. I had never seen a natural gas “bright spot” like that one. Exxon never developed it because they knew better than to even try. Ultimately though, public engagement in the climate change issue by most of the industry in the past 30 years has involved downplaying the connection between fossil fuel use and global warming.
Things “ecological” were happening in the church during the 1980s that were not as well-known in popular Christianity. The Au Sable Institute for field studies in environmental science was established in 1979 under the leadership of University of Wisconsin ecologist Calvin DeWitt. A trust originating in the UK initiated the international environmental mission of A Rocha, with the encouragement of renowned theologian-pastor John Stott. Professors at Christian colleges were promoting environmental stewardship or creation care in their courses; Raymond Brand at Wheaton College and Fred Van Dyke at Northwestern College were exemplary teachers and authors.
After US military action in Vietnam ended in early 1973, student activists seemed to be looking for a new cause. In 1979, Hollywood gave us The China Syndrome and Metropolitan Edison gave us Three Mile Island. “No More Nukes” became the rallying cry on campuses and city streets. From my present perspective (and I know not everyone will agree with me), the retreat from research and deployment of safer nuclear energy in the decades following Three Mile Island cost us a serviceable, zero-carbon-emitting source of energy to bridge between fossil fuels and a renewable energy future.
Through the 1980s then, environmental activism (or creation care) as celebrated on Earth Day was about a safer, cleaner planet. We were making the Earth uninhabitable by filling the air and water with toxic chemicals, overflowing landfills, and radiation. Recycling paper, glass and aluminum became a thing. The Executive and Legislative branches of US Government heard the people and established laws and agencies for environmental protection.
By the age of fourteen years and twenty Earth Days, I was finishing my Ph.D. program and learning about connections between climate change during the Ice Age (the past 2 million years) and regular variations that regulate the amount of incoming solar radiation due to changing orbit shape and position of the Earth relative to the Sun. Stable isotopes measured in deep sea sediments (layer by layer) and polar ice cores (year by year) revealed cycles that matched the astronomical shifts controlling volumes of sea water and polar ice between glacial advances and interglacial warmings. Similar cycles related to regular sea level change were evident in very ancient rocks, too. These patterns in rock strata representing climate cycles of tens of thousands of years were embedded in longer cycles of sea level change on the order of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years related to plate tectonic activity. Global change was real and it was certainly natural. Incidentally, the geologic record of global sea level change going back 600 million years (reflecting both tectonic and climate cycles) was developed by energy industry geoscientists and used to successfully prospect for oil and gas.
Another shift in the geosciences during the 1980s regarding global change originated with the outrageous idea that the Earth was (or was like) a giant living organism. James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis envisioned conditions on Earth controlled by interconnections between earth, sea, sky, life and the sun. The living organism idea turned out to be a mere metaphor, but there are self-regulating processes that maintain equilibrium or changes that can drive the system to accelerated warming or cooling. Earth Systems Science was born. NASA and other nations launched a fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Baseline field data accumulated from every continent. Professor Charles David Keeling had been measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from the isolated observatory high atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii since 1958, and the upward trend was clear and consistent. Computer models simulated the impact of even higher concentrations of greenhouse gases on global temperatures, but the methods and results were controversial.
The First Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 1990, utilized data for climate change that accumulated in the preceding decade. The senior editor for the first three Assessment Reports was Sir John Houghton, a British atmospheric physicist and evangelical Christian leader in science-faith dialog. Their reports concluded that atmospheric CO2 was responsible for half of the ongoing greenhouse warming and that temperatures could rise 0.3°C per decade during the 21st century. So, by the age of fourteen years and thirty Earth Days, I was teaching undergraduates about these new global change ideas. Students in my gen ed Environmental Geology course learned about isotopes and ice cores, but I admitted my subtle skepticism over the “iffy” models. I recall that uncomfortable feeling professors have when they really don’t know much more about a topic than their students. Nevertheless, one student enrolled in that course, a physics major, eventually told me those paltry lectures got him thinking about atmospheric physics, leading him to a Ph.D. and career at the U.S. Naval Research Lab focusing on climate change!
Since 2000, predictions for global warming in the IPCC First Assessment were confirmed in subsequent IPPC reports and independently verified by programs such as Berkeley Earth. If global change was not being emphasized enough in college science curricula, students could read all about it through the burgeoning resources of the internet and media coverage. This is when I found myself, at the age of fourteen years plus forty Earth Days, being mentored by my students. Down the hall from my office, one highly inquisitive student with an attitude of “who-says-I’m-too-young-to-do-that?” was writing his own book in our seminar room on Christian climate change activism. Ben Lowe’s Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (2009) contributed to the rapidly emerging movement of millennials engaged in creation care during the second and current decade of the current century. He and other young adults from around the country organized their own organization, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
My colleague Jim Clark developed a fine Energy and Climate Change course here at Wheaton College in the early 2010s. Jim engaged in real global change research using NASA satellite data and employing sophisticated computer models. But he had the audacity to retire and the course eventually landed in my load. So, at the age of fourteen years and fifty Earth Days, I developed my own version of the course. The results were satisfying (and student evaluations largely positive), even with the shift to pandemic-induced remote learning at the halfway point. A highlight was inviting former students, colleagues and new acquaintances representing green energy industry, government and academic perspectives.
So belated Happy Earth Day. There actually are greeting cards for sale to celebrate the day (next year, maybe). Please make sure they are made out of recycled paper.