Twenty three thousand times a day. That’s how often, on average, a human breathes. Consider that as 23,000 reminders that every day is Earth Day. Breathing, the subconscious act of maintaining our own lives, is only possible thanks to the complex and beautiful natural ecosystem that we all come from. All living things have beautifully-evolved mechanisms of extracting their needs from nature in order to develop, survive, and thrive. For us mammals, we need lungs and oxygen, which are totally underrated until you don’t have them anymore; only once something is gone do we become painfully aware of just how much we need it. Like so many of the resources that we rely upon in our modern societies, we are blasé about their fragility until they start to run out.
I grew up in Australia and spent many of my summer days as a kid at the beach in Sydney. As you may know, our beaches have some of the best surf — huge waves that, as a little person, provide hours of entertainment in the form of ‘boogie boarding’, aka body surfing. Getting ‘dumped’ is a term we commonly use to describe getting sucked up by the wave and dragged under the water, where you are then stuck in death spiral until the wave lets go and then spits you out, dumping you on the sand. It’s as dangerous as it sounds, and when it happens, it’s a moment of reckoning with the world. I remember being maybe eight or nine years old and getting dumped so badly that, to this day, I’m still a little scared of big waves. I can vividly remember what it felt like to be unable to take a breath. As I tumbled round and round and round under the strength of the waves, I knew that breathing would kill me as it would fill my lungs with seawater, but I also knew that not breathing would kill me. As sand twinkled around my small body — in what felt like a slow motion movie — I had to accept that the ocean might have its way with me. But somehow, despite my weak swimming skills and little arms, the will to survive was stronger than the wave. I fought hard and broke free of the ‘dump’ and, as I surfaced, I sucked in the most humongous life-sustaining gulp of oxygen that my little lungs would allow. One breath and I was back.
As humans, we all are in a symbiotic relationship with planet Earth. Each time we exhale, we feed another part of the planet; trees and phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen so that we can take our next breath and vice versa. Yes, we have totally fucked up the amount of carbon that is in the atmosphere, creating a dutch-oven-style heat trap. This demonstrates that an excess amount of anything in a system that was previously designed to self-regulate will eventually result in a series of negative impacts as the system tries to rectify itself. In this case, too much carbon being flooded into the natural environment has created a sort of blanket around the Earth, resembling the effect of chain smoking inside a car with all the windows rolled up — eventually the space becomes uninhabitable as there is nowhere for the smoke to escape to. When humans stumbled across carbon, deeply buried, having been stored over millennia as organic matter decomposed and condensed in the form of coal and oil, we had no clue about carbon cycles and the potential impacts that churning through the stuff at breakneck paces may have on the planet. And on us.
But, now we do. Thank you science, thank you inquiring human minds!!!!
The advanced humans living today, with all our brain power and technology, should be able to quickly figure out how to deal with this issue, rather than ignore it and hope that it will go away. Instead, there seems to be a collective regression to the behavior of a slightly abusive and arrogant teenager. When it comes to appreciating the free resources and support that is just handed to us in the form or life-sustaining air, food, and water, we are pretending like we are too cool to need it, too emotionally independent to show appreciation, and too god-damn selfish to realize that we might be pushing our parents to the brink of ruin, if we don’t get our shit together (like, right now)!
A few years ago, I was in Beijing for work. When I stepped out of the hotel room, I was immediately asphyxiated by the particles suspended in the oxygen that I had just inhaled. I experienced the same sick suffocating feeling again in Cuba, where the cars didn’t have catalytic converters attached to the exhaust — you end up eating bits of fuel as you walk down the street. And, just recently, I felt compelled to look up the air pollution statistics on the outskirts of São Paulo, as I was immediately struck with the same feeling of slow suffocating as I breathed in while traveling into the city from the airport. Turns out, more people die from air pollution in São Paulo than they do from car accidents. In fact, air pollution kills over seven million people globally each year. That sounds like a lot, but trapped carbon in the atmosphere and the resulting window’s-up-whilst-chain-smoking effect will likely kill many more of us, unless we stop behaving like selfish teenagers and instead, get our shit together.
Three trillion. That is the number of trees we humans have cleared from the face of the planet since we started our industrial civilization. There are three trillion trees left standing, but our rising appetite for new stuff fuels the demands for more land, more resources, more stuff, more [you name it]. WE, THE HUMANS, WANT MORE! With our linear system, in many cases, it is too easy to hide, forget, and ignore that more of whatever it is we want means more carbon for energy, more resources being cut down, dug up or rapidly grown, more waste getting stuck back into the ground, and more pollution. To put it plainly, the more stuff we humans want/need, the less there is for nature to do its thing with — that thing where it makes the life-sustaining resources that keep us all alive.
Stop reading this for a moment and look outside — we live amongst utter magic! There is no other known life-support system in the entire universe as magical as this one, the one you are on, right now, orbiting a sun whilst being orbited by a moon, whilst moving through space. This life-giving beauty is our home, and for some magical reason, it gave you and me and all the other things here life. This life we were given requires us to breathe air to survive. Do you see that tree or little bit of green trying to get up through the cracks on the pavement? Its entire system of existence, the fractals that formed its repeating design of leaves and branches and roots — these are the same building blocks that we are made of. The process of self-similarity is how all living things come to be, but the conditions that we experience in the act of living are what will form our shape and size. The tree looks bent and contorted because it has had to be resilient against the wind; the three blades of grass poking up through the pavement had to find a way to get to the light as it pushed it’s way through the concrete, its tiny size is a product of the conditions it had to contend with. You and I are the same; we are made of the same magic that allows caterpillars to morph into a butterflies and for a human to create another human life inside of its body. If you don’t think that every day should be Earth Appreciation Day, then you, my friend, are somehow missing out on all the magic that is happening around you, every single second — the magic that makes all of this possible. (And you’re probably missing out on how reliant you are on it too.)
We humans have great power, as we are the only species on this planet that developed a form of communication that can be transferred so readily. Language is such a powerfully defining differentiator between us and all the other mammals. It allows us to share and connect, to organize, to speak to the future now, and to listen to wise words of the past. The thing is, through the human-designed systems of mass production and hyper-consumerism, we have chosen to create through destruction rather than invest in figuring out how to create through regeneration. I believe 100% in humanity’s ability to find ways of redesigning systems that facilitate our needs in ways that are regenerative and mutually beneficial to us and the planet that we come from.
We are all living experiments of what is possible based on the conditions we have to grow within. The systems around us help to determine how our minds and bodies are shaped; all of these systems are by design, and thus, can be designed differently. That’s the greatest challenge of our time — how to design a future that works better for all of us and that is regenerative, rather than accidentally destructive. We have many options, but inaction should not be one of them.
Today and every other freaking day that we are allowed to experience the magic of life and to breathe freely should be a massive Thank You Earth Day.
Seven things to reflect on for every-day appreciation of Spaceship Earth:
- Everything is interconnected.
- Absolutely everything comes from nature.
- We live on a closed ecosystem called Earth. Everything that exists comes from it and must return to it at some point.
- Nothing is free; someone or something pays a cost for generosity.
- Space may be infinite, but the planet is finite.
- Everything you love is made of the same magic that you are made of.
- You can’t escape the need to breathe and live to tell the tale.
Ready to help us get our shit together and evolve some of these issues? I have a bunch of classes over at the UnSchool online — you can learn lots of creative ways to change systems for the better through classes on Systems Thinking, Sustainability and the Circular Economy (the Circular Economy Class is actually going live on April 29th. You can get 15% off if you pre-register by the 28th with the code EARTHDAYEVERYDAY). I’ve also created handbooks and toolkits for making change and free superpower packs for everyday superheroes.