April 22, 2012

Earth Day Reflections and a Small Pledge

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Today is Earth Day. Today is a day when one is supposed to reflect on Earth and the environment, particularly the detrimental impacts that billions of humans have on the environment. So, I thought I would take a little time today to muse about Earth and the environment, post an inspiring video, and make a small pledge.

As a geologist, I think about Earth and the environment all the time, so in a way every day is Earth Day for me. I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors, and my interest in geology began at a young age. I’ve just devoted ten years– four years of college followed by six years of graduate school– to formal study of the Earth, and I’m very satisfied with my career choice.┬áMost recently, I spent several years studying natural carbon sequestration for my PhD research, and I hope that my research will help inform scientists and engineers who work to develop technologies for carbon sequestration that employ storage of carbon in carbonate alteration minerals. One day such technologies may mitigate anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, as a result, anthropogenic climate change.

I’ve worked hard to improve my understanding of the planet, and hopefully that will help me to make informed environmental choices to reduce my environmental impact– and maybe inspire others to reduce their impact– where I decide it is worthwhile to do so. As I’ve studied the Earth, one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t blindly support all “environmental” causes. For example, I don’t think that organic farming is practical on a global scale, and I am in favor of many genetically modified foods. With 7 billion humans on the planet, unfortunately we cannot always follow the so-called “best” environmental options; rather, we must make environmental choices.

I think that the best way we can prepare ourselves to make these choices– some of which are going to be very, very tough choices– is through education and research. We need to learn as much as we can about planet Earth, and then we need to apply this knowledge to decide where and how to reduce our impact on the planet. I think that everyone should strive to learn as much as they can about the Earth. I’m not saying that everyone should pursue a PhD in geology, but I think it’s a good idea for people to try to understand some of the basics of how planet Earth operates. Maybe I can help a bit with that through my musings here on Georneys.

I think the worst thing we can do is fight about how to mitigate the impact of 7 billion humans on Earth. Certainly, informed discussion of the options is worthwhile, but I don’t think we should pit various options against each other. We aren’t doing enough to mitigate the impact of humans on the environment, and many of our mitigation ideas may fail, so we need to pursue as many mitigation efforts as possible.

As an example, some environmentalists are critical of geoengineering projects such as carbon sequestration. For these environmentalists, there is concern that carbon sequestration efforts will slow efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I understand these concerns, and I wholeheartedly support efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I have no doubt that the future of energy on Earth is renewable energy. However, I am doubtful that renewable energy technologies will be developed quickly enough, affordably enough. I also think it is unfair to force developing countries to not use resources, such as coal, that are at their disposal for development. Therefore, in addition to supporting efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and develop renewable energy, I also heartily support geoengineering projects that aim to sequester carbon dioxide from prior and ongoing emissions. I think that both reduction of emissions and sequestration of carbon are required to mitigate carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and avert catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. I am hopeful that humans can commit to both reduction and sequestration to make the difference we need.

That said, when considering the large and exponentially growing number of humans on the globe and their large impacts, I find that I can easily become discouraged and depressed. I wonder, sometimes, if I should even bother trying to reduce my own impact on the Earth when I am only one out of seven billion. I also find myself thinking thoughts such as: Does it really matter if I recycle this can when one plane flight between America and South Africa contributes so much more to my carbon footprint? I am also lazy. Very often, I will do things such as drive somewhere when I really could walk, throw something recyclable into the trash if its easier at the time, and neglect to turn off the lights in a room when I’m not there. As Callan points out, if one day my husband and I have children, that will undo (in a way) years of dedicated environmental efforts. A part of me wants to just throw up my hands and give up on all efforts to be environmentally responsible.

Ultimately, though, I have hope for planet Earth and the future of her environment. Humans may be multiplying in large numbers and may be lazy and destructive to the environment, but we are also (I hope, although the recent climate change denialism has me worried) smart. Perhaps I am just naive and young, but I am hopeful that we will be able to use a combination of reduction of impact and geoengineering to keep Earth a reasonably pleasant place to live.

For some inspiration in this regard, below is an incredible video showing how a soon-to-be MIT student sent the tube containing her admission letter to near space. For me, watching this video leaves me hopeful for the future of humans on Earth. If we can inspire the next generation to be curious about our planet and also to have concern for the planet that translates into action through hard work and creativity, then Earth may not be such a bad place to live in the future, after all. Perhaps all we need are a few more smart, curious, hardworking young people like Erin King. I realize that Erin didn’t address the environment in the below video, but I’d sure like to hear her ideas (and the ideas of other smart young people) for how to geoengineer the planet.


Although I am hopeful that humans are smart enough to geoengineer their way out of environmental problems (or at least some of the problems) on Earth today, I also recognize that reduction of impact remains important. I know I can do more to reduce my own environmental impact. As tempted as I may be, sometimes, to give up on my environmental efforts, the hope in me won’t let me. So, I’ll end this post with a pledge:

For the next month (hopefully longer, but I’ll start out with something realistic), I am not going to use a single plastic bag from any store. I’m fairly good about this back home in South Africa, where they actually charge for plastic bags, but I’ve been slacking during my trip back to the United States. I just purchased two cloth bags at the grocery store this evening. I plan to take them everywhere with me during the next month.

Okay, that may be a small pledge, but it’s a start. I’ll report back in a month, hopefully to tell you that I succeeded in this small effort. If you would like to make a similar pledge, please feel free to leave a comment below or to make a pledge on the Earth Day website.