Earth Day, 22 April, is a celebration of our planet and a reminder of the fragility of the ecosystem services we depend on.
The first Earth Day was celebrated on 22 April 1970, during a time of heightened environmental awareness. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962, lyrically describing the environmental harm caused by pesticides, which were increasingly used to meet the agricultural demands of a growing population.
The 1960s were also the decade of peak air pollution in many cities, following the post-war baby boom, and the decade in which the global environmental consequences of nuclear weapons were appreciated.
Finally, in 1968, humans on their way to the moon saw, for the first time, the whole Earth in a single view. The photographs they took were widely publicized, raising public consciousness of our planet’s vulnerability, and the finiteness of its resources.
Those who celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 were worried about air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change and population growth, just as we are today. These activists scored major victories in the United States, such as the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the building of new waste water treatment plants, and the national Clean Air Act, which helped cut major air pollutants by 30 per cent within a decade.
Earth Day 2016 will see the official signing of the COP21 Paris Agreement. Signatories are to be held to policies that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, so as to limit climate change to 2 oC of warming above pre-industrial levels.
However, the national commitments made so far will only limit warming to 2.7 — 3.7 oC, which could still have catastrophic consequences. There is plenty of work left for environmental campaigners to do, convincing their governments to make deeper commitments to safeguarding the climate.
So far, government policies have all focused on reducing average greenhouse gas emissions per person, yet the total number of people is an equally important variable in calculating national consumption. A rapidly-growing population will make it impossible to keep to the commitments made in Paris.
According to Population Matters’ Overshoot Index for 2016, it would already take more than 2.8 planet Earths to support everyone in the world at a UK standard of living. Even at the current global average standard of living, there are 2.7 billion more people than the Earth can sustainably support.
We need to bring population back into the conversation about environmental policy. Population Matters has been doing this by calling for the empowerment of women and better sex education in schools, lobbying for foreign aid that meets unmet demand for family planning materials, and raising awareness of the benefits associated with smaller families.