Don’t wish the Earth a happy Earth Day; it doesn’t want to hear it. Earth Day is when humans get together and unify their call for environmental care and concern. The Earth has never called for help from anyone—it’s fine taking care of itself, thank you very much. Whether the year was 1970, or 1999 B.C., the Earth “system” has utilized a roughly constant set of resources for sustaining life: solar energy and the multitude of elements available for assembling objects and organisms. It’s a dynamic set of resources, but it is finite.
So, despite it being the 40th “anniversary” of Earth Day, the Earth isn’t any bigger or more bountiful than it was when DNA first wiggled its little strands around, or when primates started standing upright on two feet. What has grown quite significantly in those 40 years is human’s appropriation of natural resources. Since 1970, world population has almost doubled from 3.6 billion to 6.9 billion, and each human now demands a greater share of natural resources to support his or her way of life. This all adds up to massively unsustainable growth.
Growth like this is not normal or healthy for any organism. The Impossible Hamster—a short video by the New Economics Foundation—illustrates this well: “There is a reason why, in nature, things grow only to a certain point.” If a hamster grew constantly at the rate it does in its first few weeks of life, it would weigh 9 billion tons by its first birthday, and there wouldn’t be enough grain on the planet to feed more than a couple of hamsters this size, let alone other species.
Earth Day isn’t necessarily about celebrating the Earth but about preserving the Earth as we know it—the diversity of organisms, the ecosystem services, and our human civilization. To this end, an increasing body of literature and even political voices are calling into question the current mode of economic growth. Measurements of human wellbeing and development must move beyond growth in GNP, imports, and exports, and toward measures like the Ecological Footprint or Happy Planet Index. A recent report titled “Growth Isn’t Possible” says our aim should be to reach a steady-state economy in which everyone lives a “one-planet” lifestyle—one that demands only a realistic share of natural resources for the human species.
If everyone on the planet lived like the average North American, we would need five Earths to provide the necessary materials to keep everything going. But we don’t have five Earths. So not only is growth impossible, but humanity needs to do some serious shrinking of lifestyles and economic ambitions. That’s something to consider as you celebrate your one Earth today.