Reflections on turning 65

Reflections on turning 65

This Friday, June 5, I’ll be 65 years old. I don’t consider myself old, but in chronological years I guess I am.

The coronavirus has made many of us “boomers” more aware of our mortality. I have a dear friend whose dad has contracted the disease. He is in serious condition, and as she shares updates on his battle to survive, it becomes painfully obvious anyone could find themselves in this situation.

The disease, while more virulent in older populations, does not discriminate. We all need to take this virus seriously.

As we get older, we all contemplate our lives, our successes and our failures. We look back and review the many things we have done or wish we could have done and also how our world has changed.

My husband and I often remark we believe we grew up in the best era. The ‘60s and ‘70s had the best music, the best clothes, the best economy for the middle class and seemed to be an era of awakening. This was especially true of the environmental movement.

Certainly we made great strides in those years to enact many major environmental regulations and policies.

They included Clean Air Act; Wilderness Act; National Emissions Standard Act; Solid Waste Disposal Act; National Environmental Policy Act; creation of the Environmental Protection Agency; Hazardous Air Pollutant Standards, Occupational Safety and Health Act; Lead Paint Prevention Act; Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments; Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; Marine Protection Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Toxic Substance and Control Act; National Energy and Conservation Policy Act; Endangered Species Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; and The Fish Conservation and Wildlife Act. These all occurred from 1963-80.

We were making progress in addressing the destruction of the planet we inhabit. Sadly that progress has been rolled back as we have witnessed the weakening and reversals of many of these laws during the past three and a half years. Speaking strictly as an environmental scientist, cutting policies that protect human health and the environment is not a good thing for us or the environment.

In the 65 years since I was born, the world’s population has grown from 2.8-7.76 billion. According to predictions from the United Nations, Earth’s population could reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

Many people, like David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the international Institute for Environment and Development in London, believe we should not be looking at the number of consumers on our planet but rather “the nature of their consumption.”

Yes, more people mean more water used, more food needed, more land needed, more wastes produced and more energy needed. But consider this: The U.S., which has about 5% of the world’s population, uses 25% of the world’s resources.

The world’s wealthiest 16% uses 80% of the world’s natural resources. The Global Footprint Network said, “If everyone in the world lived as Americans do, we would need five Earths to support humanity.”

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Satterthwaite said low-income nations emit less than 1 ton of carbon dioxide per person per year, whereas high-income nations can emit six to 30 tons per person per year. We saw the marked decrease in global carbon-dioxide levels as we self-quarantined for less than six weeks.

In the 65 years since I was born, our planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from 312 ppm to 416.18. It seems each successive year becomes a new record hottest year.

The Arctic Research Consortium of the United States reported the Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the world, and this holds major implications for us. As the Arctic ice melts, earth loses the ability to reflect sunlight: the Albedo effect. As temperatures rise, the Tundra will melt and release the virulent climate-changing gas: methane.

Since the year I entered high school, 1970, Greenland has lost 11 quadrillion pounds of water or 4,976 gigatons. Greenland is the world’s second largest fresh water reservoir. The data published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, reported 1 gigaton is equivalent to the amount of water New York City uses in a year.

Since 1970 more than 1.4 million hectares of forest worldwide have been lost. In Brazil 700,000 square miles of Amazon forests have been logged. Much of the land is cleared to raise cattle, grow soybeans or cultivate palm trees for the massive palm oil industry.

One quarter of the world’s coniferous boreal forests are located in Canada. Between 1996 and 2015, 28 million acres were clear-cut. These forests are more than just trees. They are home to hundreds of indigenous tribes, they control flooding, they provide drinking water, they are habitat for thousands of species and they sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Another staggering factoid is the amount of plastic made during my lifetime, most of which still remains as waste on the planet. In 1955, my birth year, 5 million tons of plastics were produced globally. By 2002, the year I started my doctorate degree, 200 million tons were produced each year.

Today well over 300 million tons a year are now made globally. Where is it going? It’s in our oceans, in our lakes, in our landfills, in our ecosystems and in our bodies.

Looking back through the past 65 years is sobering. These problems will not go away on their own. The solutions are complex and costly, but they are worth it. We all need an earth that is vibrant and alive and able to sustain its inhabitants.

In addition to my birthday, I’ll be celebrating something else on June 5. In 1974 the United Nations designated that day as World Environment Day. Their hope was to raise awareness and encourage action for protecting our environment.

When I blow out my candles, I’ll be wishing more people realize the time to act to save our planet is now.

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