Quirks and Quarks

Earth Day 2020 — the 50th anniversary will be the weirdest Earth Day ever

A new book examines how far we’ve come in our understanding of the challenges facing our planet.

Pollution is down during the global pandemic — can we learn from this?

Earth 2020, Edited by Philippe Tortell, OpenBook Publishers (Image, NASA, cover design Anna Gatti)

On April 22 we'll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day under conditions no one could have imagined in 1970. The global economy has experienced a massive slowdown due to the spread of the COVID-19.  As a result industrial pollution — almost across the board — is down.

It shouldn't take a global pandemic to make the Earth a better place to live, but it shows us, in a way, what's possible.

A lot has changed since the first Earth Day in 1970. We know more about the damage we've done to our planet — and how we might fix it — than we ever have before.

Demonstrators in Washington on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 (The Associated Press)

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald spoke with University of British Columbia oceanographer Philippe Tortell about his new book, Earth 2020: An Insider's Guide to a Rapidly Changing Planet — a collection of essays examining how our understanding of the environment has changed in the last half century, and a better path forward for our planet. 

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Well let's get to the history of Earth Day and where it came from. There seemed to be two related parts of this story one is the politics of the 60s and the other is the birth of environmental science. What was the gestation of Earth Day?

It really came down to harnessing that social unrest, that sense of activism and protest and channeling it towards the nascent environmental movement.  And that really was the brilliant stroke of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. The pivotal moment, at least in the United States, came in 1969 with the Santa Barbara oil spill.

At the time, it was the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. It really came at the end of a decade that was started out by the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring where she laid out a warning against the harmful effects of DDT and other chemicals in the food chain. 

Gaylord Nelson was able to infuse the environmental activism that was developing at the time with the social unrest of civil rights and the anti-war movement to really create something much bigger than had ever previously existed before.

Oceanographer Philippe Tortell in the field in Antarctica (Sven Kranz)

So it was sort of the combination of the anti-establishment movement, and the politics and social conditions that were just right at that time.

That's right. If you think about the 25 years prior to 1970, the world had seen an enormous expansion of industrial activity and the production of all kinds of incredibly useful compounds like DDT and CFCs. And these really were seen at the time as miracle compounds — real fruits of human ingenuity.

DDT was credited with saving thousands and thousands of lives from people against insect borne diseases. CFCs had enabled the rapid expansion of cheap and reliable refrigeration around the world. So it really seemed like a time when science was finally beginning to allow humanity to triumph over nature as it was seen at the time. 

And Rachel Carson, and others, really put the first cracks in this notion of human progress, really highlighting the darker side of these compounds, like DDT and CFCs. And Earth Day really was sort of a pushback against these notions of progress. And the youth of the day had this counterculture that pushed back against those 25 years of post-war industrial expansion.

A digital signboard above the westbound lanes of Highway 417 advises motorists to stay home to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Globally reduced traffic and industrial activity has led to lower levels of air pollution. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

It seems like this late 60s was a period when we started to understand the way the world really works holistically. Take me through that.

That took a little bit longer. I would say through the 80s and 90s is where that really began as scientists had the tools to measure properties on global scales. And the really important developments there are the advent of satellite measurements that enabled us to look at things from ocean color and sea ice distributions, to the rise of computer power and numerical modeling, that allowed us to create very complicated simulations of earth-ocean-atmosphere-type systems. 

Together, those global scale observations, really enabled us to observe the Earth as we've never done before and to make some important projections about what the future trajectories might look like under different scenarios.

Now the science around understanding the environment is much more developed today than it was in 1970. Can you tell me about some of that?

Sure. On one hand, science has become hyper, hyper-specialized and we've made incredible advances in all of these different fields through remote sensing, through numerical models and sophisticated computer power, but also equally through developments in molecular biology — understanding the taxonomic diversity of organisms from deep ocean trenches to the top of mountains. 

So science has developed all kinds of new tools and become very, very specialized. But I would say in the last 10 to 15, maybe 20 years, we've also come to realize that true progress is going to be made at the boundaries and intersections between these fields. 

Birds swim in the cold waters of Lake Ontario overlooking the city of Toronto skyline in Mississauga, Ont. Ontario's wildlife will likely have a population boom thanks to the province's ongoing state of emergency that is keeping most people at home, say a pair of experts. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

We now see new kinds of collaborations. So we're seeing, for example, a lot more interaction between biology and chemistry and earth systems science to recognize that there are these tight couplings between biological processes and ecosystems, and physical processes and the Earth Systems chemical cycles and so on.

Well this year's Earth Day will be unique. It's happening during a global pandemic that's transforming human activity and the environment around the world. What are we to make of this pandemic Earth Day?

For one thing, it certainly demonstrates what happens when humanity takes its foot off the gas pedal — even for just a few weeks or months. It's almost as though Earth is finally breathing just a little bit easier, once again, as the frenetic pace of human economic activity slows.

At the same time, it also tells us how we can move as a society and as a species in the face of existential threat. Society does have the ability and the wherewithal to make massive transitions.

I also think, as heart wrenching as all the economic and health suffering is, those kinds of resets in society do provide opportunities for us to think really hard about what our core values are and how we want to develop our society is going forward.

Produced by Jim Lebans and written by Jim Lebans and Sonya Buyting