Earth Day – 43 years and counting

The idea for the first Earth Day was hatched, as many conservation ideas have been, at the 1969 UNESCO conference right here in San Francisco. It was celebrated for the first time the following year on the first day of Spring — March 21, 1970.  It’s since blossomed and is now celebrated in more than 192 countries around the Earth and many of the ideas promoted along the way have become mainstream. But how much further have we to go?

Protected areas both land and sea have increased by 866% since 1970
Protected areas, like this one at Point Reyes National Seashore, have increased by 866% since 1970

I was curious as to how things had changed so ran a few quick statistics that I found interesting — its far from exhaustive but is perhaps informative.  To me the take-home message from these few statistics is that we can recycle and reuse all we want, but until we deal with per capita consumption we are just skirting the edge of the issue. We clearly have a long way to go.

Earth Day Statistics

Statistic 1970 Present % Change
Global Population 3.7 BN 7.1 BN 92%
# Cars in USA 108 M 243 M 125%
Car fuel efficiency 14 MPG 22.4 MPG 60%
# mobile cell phones in the world 0 6 BN !
Carbon Dioxide concentration 326.87 ppm 397.34 ppm 22%
Global protected areas 2,509,516 km2 24,236,479 km2 866%

The World’s population has almost doubled in the past 43 years. And while the rate of change is declining, its still an impressive increase.  But the truly stratospheric rise has been in cell phones. The first cell phone was introduced by Motorola in 1973 — there are now more than 6 billion in the world and some  estimate there will be more cell phones than people by this time next year. Taken as a proxy for consumer electronics, this is a phenomenal change. I am also reasonably confident that no amount of personal plastic and metal recycling can make up for the additional resources contained in this must have accessory that many of us (me included) seem to churn through every two years.

A quick look at cars in the USA was also interesting. The good news is that fuel efficiency standards have increased by 60% from a pitiful 14 mpg to an estimated 22.4 mpg for the US car fleet. It’s still pathetic of course (friends in Britain regularly get 50 mpg in non-hybrid vehicles).  But this modest gain is dwarfed by the massive 125% increase in cars on the road — and pretty much we’ve been driving more every year (with recent modest declines as the economy faltered). Worldwide, there are now more than 1 billion cars on the road, with no reason to believe this trend will reverse.

Carbon dioxide concentrations have gone up 22% — a small increase compare to the other numbers I looked at, but the consequences are likely to be catastrophic and despite some lackluster efforts they only continue to rise. The recent collapse of the European carbon market gives little reason to hope that the market-based solutions tried to date will work long-term.

The one bright spot for me, as a long-time land trust practitioner is the very large increase in the area of the Earth — both land and sea — set aside as protected areas. This has increased a massive 865% since the first Earth Day. But once again to put it in perspective, we’ve gone from setting aside a little under 0.5% of the Earth’s surface area to barely 4.75%.


Fuel efficiency:

Vehicle miles:

Cell phones:

Carbon Dioxide

World Protected Areas

3 thoughts on “Earth Day – 43 years and counting”

  1. Great article and thanks for your perspective. The rise in land protection globally is encouraging, but do you have a sense of how much habitat destruction (development and conversion to agriculture) has occurred over the same time frame? Is our mitigation keeping pace or do land protection efforts need to radically pick up the pace?

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