As Earth Day celebrations blend with the March For Science this weekend, the Smithsonian Institution is hosting and Earth Optimism Summit, designed to inject some hope into what can be a gloomy picture of the future.

Every year on Earth Day we are reminded of the changes happening to our planet, from ocean acidification, loss of polar ice and destruction of habitat to extinction of species and a warming climate, largely due to the activities of a burgeoning human population. And this year in particular, scientists are reminding us of the glacial pace of political action to mitigate those changes, and what appears to be steps backwards on the part of the new U.S. administration.

This very long list of planetary woes can generate a feeling of hopelessness and dread about the state of this unique blue planet we live on. But if hopelessness prevails, change will not happen, which is why the Smithsonian Institution is directing attention to the positive actions already taking place that could point to a clean and sustainable future.


A protester dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump is seen in New York on Saturday. Trump is rolling back clean air and clean energy policies put in place by the Obama administration, and threatens to pull out of the Paris Accord. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Public events and seminars from April 21 to 23, held in Washington, will involve displays, events, films and seminars highlighting success stories in conservation, new developments in food science, energy efficiency, biodiversity, ecosystem recovery, as well as successful projects involving business, students and community groups.

When it comes to real change, big announcements or pledges by governments can take years to turn into law. Change is complicated by lobbying and stalling tactics by interests that stand to suffer, and positive steps can be reversed by changes in government leadership.  We are seeing that happen in the U.S. right now, as Donald Trump rolls back clean air and clean energy policies from the Obama administration and threatens to pull out of the Paris Accord.

On the other hand, at the state and municipal levels, people are realizing that going green can save money for business, improve the community and preserve surrounding habitat. This positive change happens when citizens are educated about the issues and aware of sensible, alternate solutions for energy and transportation.

This idea of good education when facing a crisis is like sailing into a storm. (Stay with me on this one.) Of course sails need wind to drive a boat through the water, but too much wind can overpower the boat, blowing it over on its side or even causing it to capsize, a frightening experience. So facing a storm with all sails fully raised would be foolish, extremely uncomfortable, and very dangerous.  

An experienced captain sees the storm coming and shortens the sails beforehand to maintain control of the boat. If the storm turns into a gale, the sails may even be taken down altogether so the boat sails on "bare poles." If the right actions are taken, the boat and crew can make it through the storm safely.


Protesters hold placards and banners as they participate in the March for Science rally on Earth Day, in central Sydney, Australia, on Saturday. Positive change happens when citizens are educated about the issues and aware of sensible, alternate solutions for energy and transportation. (David Gray/Reuters)

According to science, our spaceship Earth is facing dark clouds ahead. We have been powering the planet with energy sources that are driving hard into the future. We could continue business as normal at full throttle, but might find ourselves scrambling to gain control when it is too late. On the other hand, we can listen to the wisdom of science and prepare for the future by powering down, switching to alternative sources of energy that will not overwhelm the environment and enable us to face the changes in a sustainable way.

So this Earth Day, it is important to think about the serious issues facing the environment, but rather than become discouraged, be optimistic that real solutions are at hand if we have the wisdom to use them.