Combining our knowledge, technology and history can usher humans toward a thriving future
“The power to question is the basis of all human progress.” — Indira Gandhi
By Peter Schlosser
This Saturday marks the 53rd annual Earth Day. There is no question that we are living on a planet under duress. At this moment, we are living out of balance with Earth’s life supporting systems. Even as we celebrate, we acknowledge that humankind finds itself at a crossroads–the difficult decisions we make today will have consequences for the way we live now and the resources we leave for future generations.
Will there be more urgency as our knowledge grows? I want to believe that the answer is yes. We know the actions that are required, and we know that change has happened in the past, sometimes at a rapid pace. The increasing expressions of the negative impacts from global change are likely to increase the allocation of resources toward current and impending crises.
It has happened before. The first Earth Day in 1970 was the summation and amplification of events that preceded it. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” launched the modern environmental movement. In 1966, a smog event in New York City suffocated to death as many as 200 people. And in 1969, media coverage of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California and a river on fire in Cleveland, Ohio caught the attention of Congress and the American people, searing the need for change into the public consciousness. After 20 million people demonstrated on the first Earth Day, a flurry of government acts followed, including the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and passage of the National Environmental Education Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), among others. “The Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome in 1972, provided further insights into the hazards of unrestrained economic and population growth, forewarning of the stressors we now see on the planet and society in the present.
Today, we are witnessing major policy successes in spite of the contentious political environment. The U.S. government is mobilizing resources at a scale not seen before to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is a historic investment in U.S. energy infrastructure and production of the order of hundreds of billions of dollars, with incentives to propel electric vehicles and solar systems, as well as innovations in carbon capture and use of hydrogen in future energy systems. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, often referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure deal, includes $8 billion for regional clean hydrogen hubs and $6 billion for research on carbon capture and storage. These investments in present manufacturing and future opportunities, as well as initiatives in other nations, are essential because humankind cannot simply rely on cutting emissions first and then removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere later–these must be done in tandem rather than sequentially.
Today, we are witnessing major policy successes in spite of the contentious political environment. The U.S. government is mobilizing resources at a scale not seen before to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory and partners around the region are working together to be part of these transitions. The Southwest Clean Hydrogen Innovation Network (SHINe) is under consideration for funding as one of a handful of the regional clean hydrogen hubs under the bipartisan infrastructure law. The coalition will support processing, storage and use of hydrogen, as well as add workforce development and job opportunities. The Southwest Regional Direct Air Capture Hub, also seeking support under the infrastructure law, will accelerate the commercialization of carbon capture, processing, transport and geologic storage through a multi-site hub in the four corners region, in partnership with tribes, area residents, and local and state governments. Both of these endeavors merge scientific knowledge and discovery with engagement for scalable solutions–hallmarks of the Global Futures Laboratory.
We know the path ahead of us looks different than the path behind us. But we are not flying blind as we look to relieve the pressures that our lifestyles have placed on the planet. We have knowledge, technology and history to help guide us toward a thriving future for all. We need to support rapid transformations at the local, national and global scales. It has been done before, and we can do it again. Happy Earth Day.
Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of Global Futures and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. This article first appeared in the Global Futures: Now newsletter in April 2023. Sign up for the newsletter at globalfutures.asu.edu/gfl-newsletters.