Earth Days (2013)

By William McDonough and Wendy Schmidt


Since its debut 43 years ago, Earth Day has become the largest civic observance on the planet, celebrated by more than one billion people in 192 countries. Organized in 1970 to draw attention to environmental problems in the United States, it now expresses a global desire to not simply sustain existing patterns of development, but to live in societies that support a more just, more prosperous, and more ecologically healthy world.

As one billion people imagine a bright future for the planet, it is worth tracing the arc of history that has established equity, economy, and ecology as fundamental and interdependent elements of sustainable civilization. At a time of unprecedented decline in ecological health, their relationship has never been more important.

In the United States, history took a deep bow to equity in the 1700s, the century of the Enlightenment and natural rights. In a sustained argument for individual liberty and freedom from remote tyranny, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with a debt to the English Bill of Rights, established the first generation of civil liberties and human rights. They defined the individual’s right to life, liberty and property; protected citizens from the long reach of royalty; and provided a legal framework for free enterprise.

The U.S. Constitution recognized the rights of white, Protestant, male landowners. We have come a long way since then, as Emancipation, women’s suffrage, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Civil Rights Act and other declarations have allowed an ever-growing number of people to freely, safely and gainfully participate in the world.

The 1800s were the century of the market economy. Adam Smith’s revolutionaryThe Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, rang the free market’s opening bell and for the next 200 years the world did not look back. Lit by tallow, wax, and whale oil, then coal oil, then carbon-based electricity, the capitalist market economy gained scale and power year-by-year, ending Western feudalism. Evolving concepts of property rights took on a social dimension, capitalists seeking self-inurement; communists seeking communal ownership. Industrialists and nation-states accrued capital and organized phenomenal forces of production.

So phenomenally powerful, that when the discovery of oil in 1859 juiced the market economy, there was little to stop a system designed to extract, consume and dominate the natural world, even as it grew at the expense of many of the poorest people on the planet.

In our worldwide journey to the modern life we know, we have laid waste to the world. We dug, we drilled, we burned. We took, made, and wasted — we threw things “away.” We fouled air, water and soil, inventing all sorts of pollution, and came up with terms like externalities to describe our effects and emissions. We trashed the joint.

It happened so fast. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.” Now, we are actively changing those essences, from the chemistry of oceans and atmosphere to the structure of forests, mountains and coral reefs. Many scientists now regard the human influence on global ecosystems as nothing less than a geological force; they call our time the Anthropocene era.

We stand at an unprecedented moment in human history. Having become a species capable of generating planet-wide change, we can now choose to redesign our relationship with the Earth. Damage control, merely reducing pollution or minimizing our carbon footprint, is insufficient. Away has gone away.

The time has come for the ecological century. Nature does not respond to our interdependence with it by trying to minimize itself out of existence, but instead by growing and flourishing. Good design does the same. By purposefully re-designing everything we make to be safe, healthy and beneficial, we can celebrate the unique and fruitful role we play in perpetuating life on Earth. Like all life, we can run on the power of the sun and other forms of “clean” energy being brought to light every day. Our designs can be akin to the nutrients in natural systems, nourishing good, sustainable growth.

Earth Day celebrants: Become fierce designers and implementers. Start where you are. Let’s create a more just, prosperous, ecologically healthy and delightful world — a world that works for everyone for thousands of Earth Days to come.


Follow William McDonough on Twitter:

©2013 William McDonough & Wendy Schmidt
Huffington Post, Published April 19, 2013