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Earth Day 2050

April 21, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an opinion-editorial article and the concluding piece to the Earth Week 2010 series that pays tribute to the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

By Jonathan Fink

Last fall I went to the 40th reunion of a high school class in St. Louis that I was a part of through freshman year. I had not seen any of the 75 other attendees in four and a half decades. It felt like a “Twilight Zone” episode, meeting these graying, accomplished retirees, with which my last conversations were about the latest Beatles single or whether their moms could drive them to my house to play. While most of these 59-year-olds were still in good physical and mental shape, the sobering reality was that by our next decadal reunion, many would be in serious decline.

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day provides a similar opportunity for each of us to parachute back into our past and speculate about our future.

In April 1970, the environment was one of many competing priorities for us as individuals and as a society. As a college freshman in Maine, my major external focus was on the Vietnam War, planning campus strikes and Washington protest marches. Except when a rare easterly wind blew foul-smelling emissions from the local paper mill toward our campus, concerns about pollution were less immediate than the visceral threats we felt from the military draft. The just-emerging worries about climate change were equally split between fears of global warming and a new Ice Age. In our semi-rural location, Earth Day was mainly a social event, with marginal impact on all but the most dedicated members of our college’s Environment Club.

What a difference 40 years can make.

Thanks in part to the laws passed following the first Earth Day, we have made great progress in tackling specific environmental problems such as preserving air and water quality. Corporations are no longer automatically viewed by environmental groups as the enemy. Several, in fact, such as carpet-maker Interface, are viewed as role models of responsible stewardship. Others, such as Wal-Mart, get more mixed reviews overall, but are seen to be using their scale and clout to move sustainability agendas forward more quickly than government or academic groups alone could do.

bee and flower
In 1970, Jonathan Fink was a college freshman in Maine. "The environment was one of many competing priorities for us as individuals and as a society," writes Fink, now an ASU professor and director of the Center for Sustainability Science Applications.

Nowhere are the changes more profound than on college and university campuses. While demonstrations and protest marches are far less common than in the 1960s, online social networks allow students to organize and communicate much more rapidly and effectively. The awareness of how environmental, social and economic challenges are intimately linked is much greater among college students today than in the past. Prospective students pick their colleges based on how green their business practices and dormitories are, not just their academic reputations.

ASU is widely recognized today as a “green” leader among higher education institutions. Its most celebrated distinction is its School of Sustainability, where students of varied backgrounds put together unique curricula tailored to the kinds of problems they want to help solve. This is one of more than a dozen new schools that ASU created over the past decade to better align its degree programs with societal priorities. These all grew out of a carefully nurtured and longstanding culture of cross-campus cooperation. Although none recognized it at the time, interdisciplinary research dating back to the 1970s and 80s in photosynthesis, solar energy, ecology, landscape architecture and public policy led directly to many of ASU’s strongest sustainability-oriented initiatives today.

Here in Metropolitan Phoenix, the population in 2010 is three times larger than in 1970. Not coincidentally, rapid urbanization is the research domain at ASU with the widest participation of disciplines and greatest applicability to a successful future for Arizona. In theory, the greater density of urban living can combine with technology to reduce per capita consumption of water, energy, materials and land, and also curtail the generation of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But finding the appropriate way for each city to grow more sustainably is a very difficult challenge.

ASU uses Phoenix as its urban sustainability laboratory – a choice that initially perplexes people from more benign climates. Yet there is no better place to figure out how city managers and residents the world over can design their cities to better tolerate the urban heat island effect, overcome water shortages, expand solar energy, and accommodate large in-migrations of people fleeing environmental and social disruption. Through comparisons with other cities, and partnerships with organizations such as the World Bank and Cisco Systems, ASU is establishing Phoenix as a key test-bed for the greening of urban areas.

This summer, my daughter will graduate from high school and head off to college to study environmental science. At her 40th high school reunion – in 2050 – she and her classmates will look back from a world likely to be vastly different from that of today. Phoenix may be an oasis of technologically-assisted urban efficiency, or it could be a ghost town surviving only in the memories of 99-year-old former residents, such as myself, who fled the heat, drought and violence to migrate north.

On Earth Day’s 80th birthday, today’s high school graduates will hopefully feel pride at what their generation was able to shape out of the precarious conditions we passed on to them, rather than regret about what we collectively failed to do.

Jonathan Fink is a Foundation Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Sustainability and director of the Center for Sustainability Science Applications.