It's time to rethink Earth Day. Let's celebrate the innovations that make sustainability possible and spend less time fretting about the future.
Eight years after Rachel Carson's bestseller Silent Spring sold half a million copies and turned environmental protection into a cultural juggernaut, Earth Day was inaugurated as an annual event. It inspired Americans “to ... demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.” This burgeoning movement effectively launched modern environmentalism and generated support for establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
While Earth Day certainly did some good, it also solidified a troublesome understanding of environmental protection in the popular culture, a kind of crisis environmentalism that frames technological innovation as a mounting threat to our vulnerable planet . I say “troublesome” because we need technologies that promote sustainability to protect the environment. The Earth Day-inspired mindset makes the public skeptical of innovation and thus undermines its own cause.
Earth Day in 2021
As Earth Day, April 22, approached, a slew of articles encouraged us to reflect on how fragile the environment is. The suggestions ranged from pouring “oil into a tub of water to see how difficult it is to clean up” to meditating on 31 Earth Day quotes that “capture the majesty, fragility, and irreplaceability of our planet.” Here's an evidence-based alternative known as ecomodernism: let's accept that we face real environmental threats, then invest our resources in technological solutions. We'll consider two age-old environmental issues to see how this approach can work.
“Industrial farming” is one of the environmental movement's favorite bugaboos. “For decades,” alleges prominent activist group Friends of the Earth (FOE), “corporate power and agricultural science have been directed toward … producing as many calories as possible as cheaply as possible. The confluence of these forces has created a powerful river of toxic, energy-intensive factory farming.” But this version of events is highly misleading. Agricultural science is in part committed to producing more calories (for all of us to eat), though under a key restriction FOE doesn't mention—with as little environmental impact as possible.
This is why scientists are developing gene-edited corn with more kernels, for example, to help growers produce our food with fewer inputs. The same is true of the wrongly maligned “GMO” crops introduced in the mid-1990s: save farmers money by helping them more efficiently control weeds and insects, driving down the quantities of pesticide and other inputs they require, which ultimately boosts production. Today, farmers grow right around three times the amount of crops while only using 13 percent more land than 70 years ago. Importantly, this productivity increase occurred as the global population tripled.
Much the same could be said of animal agriculture. According to the Breakthrough Institute, champions of the ecomodernist philosophy outlined above, technological improvements boost animal yields, feed efficiency, and other productivity metrics, making it possible to produce more meat and milk while reducing global pastureland. Since 2000, the institute notes in a 2019 report, global pastureland has plummeted by an “estimated 74 million hectares (Mha), roughly the size of Chile.”
Nuclear power is one of our best bets if we want to meet the world's growing energy demand without increasing fossil fuel use. Yet many in the environmental world remain adamantly opposed to the technology; see these fact sheets from Green America and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which center around concerns about power plant accidents, nuclear proliferation, and national security.
As with industrial farming, groups that oppose nuclear energy seem uninterested in its enormous benefits and hyper-focused on its diminishing risks. Nuclear reactors have gotten safer and more efficient over the years; they are far less likely to melt down and can generate as much power as a traditional plant while taking up much less space. Timothy Jorgensen, director of Georgetown University's Health Physics and Radiation Protection graduate program, helpfully explained the situation in 2016: “nuclear power could be among the safest of all energy options, in terms of both public health and environmental impact, even accounting for the insidious risks of natural disasters.” The trick, he added, is training and maintaining “an army of highly skilled and competent” experts to safely deploy nuclear power—in other words, investing in the technology.
This is by no means an isolated opinion. “There is a growing expert consensus,” Breakthrough notes, “that scaling up nuclear energy is a promising path to creating a global energy system that supports high universal living standards and yields meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” As is often the case in science, the problem is not feasibility, but winning public support for a technology consumers have been told for decades is an existential threat.
That brings us back to where we started. Thanks to rising global incomes fueled by capitalism, we have the resources we need to solve our environmental problems. So let's stop pouring oil in tubs as a low-level science experiment and move forward with solutions that work.
 The BBC noted in a 2020 interview with the event organizers that “Earth Day created, for the first time, an environmental movement, as local and specific concerns around clean air, water, and pesticides coalesced into a broad awareness of the crisis facing the planet as a whole.” The Natural Resources Defense Council has argued that “[Rachel] Carson had made a radical proposal: that, at times, technological progress is so fundamentally at odds with natural processes that it must be curtailed.” However, some scientists have suggested that Carson would have rejected the fear-mongering NRDC and other anti-GMO groups engage in.