Sustainability, Earth Day, & Hope for the Future

I have just accepted a very exciting invitation – to be on the Earth Day 50th Anniversary Global Advisory Committee, joining an incredible list of active supporters of the planet’s environment, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Richard Branson, Philippe Cousteau, and Alan Horn, Chief Creative Office and Co-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

The invitation to be part of Earth Day 2020 is especially welcome, as questions of global sustainability continue to mount. I’ve just finished watching a news clip of a photo, taken by climatologist Steffen Olsen, of the confronting reality of Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

Greenland melting
In this photo taken on Thursday, June 13, 2019 sled dogs make their way in northwest Greenland with their paws in melted ice water. Steffen M. Olsen/AP

This is no aberration. On June 18th (a few days before I began this post), Forbes reported that Greenland lost 4 Trillion pounds (2 gigatons) of ice in just one day.

boaty McBoatface

Meanwhile, on the other end of the planet, an unmanned submersible with internet capability, delightfully dubbed “Boaty McBoatface,” made an alarming discovery (reported by CNN). Over the past several decades, Southern Ocean winds have been increasing due to the ozone hole and rising levels of greenhouse gases. This is, in turn, increases ocean mixing overall, and pushing ocean temperatures further up. Through both ice cap melting and water’s expansion as it warms, these phenomena will accelerate sea level rise. With more than a billion people living in low-lying coastal regions, the type of sea level rise predicted under these circumstances could spell devastation for life as we know it.

These are sobering statistics. At Carnegie Museum of Natural History, we are focusing on climate change and related issues by exploring the concept of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the beginning of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. While the commencement of the Anthropocene is debated (Ancient Egypt, the Industrial Revolution, and nuclear testing in New Mexico in the 1940s have all been suggested), it is likely to be made an official epoch by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy sometime in the near future. See a recent report here.

CMNH Anthropocene Living Room.jpg
The Anthropocene Living Room at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo: CMNH 2019

The Anthropocene has been a resonant topic with our community. For one thing, it isn’t as politically charged as climate per se, despite its many connection points to greenhouse gases. Importantly, the Anthropocene also offers a platform for hope and personal action. This is evidenced by the great many artists who have contributed to thinking around this topic. The 2014 Taipei Biennale is a wonderful example of this. At CMNH, we are currently showcasing the wonderful and thought-provoking work of artist Catherine Chalmers in our Anthropocene Living Room, the first long-term museum gallery in the US devoted to this topic. Through the gallery, and the content contained with in it, we hope to deepen conversations around people’s personal relationships with the natural world.

With this new thinking, there are other stories that give real cause for hope. One such example is Xyleco, a company that most people haven’t heard of but, with luck, soon will. In a very basic nutshell, Xyleco’s proprietary technology allows them to extract the sugar found in cellulose (i.e. from any plant or plant product – from tree leaves to corn husks), cheaply and in great quantities.

The end products of Xyleco appear virtually limitless

This extracted sugar can be used in a bewildering variety of ways. For instance, in can be used in foods like sweeteners, preservatives and other additives (and apparently doesn’t cause tooth decay). It can be made into alcohol, livestock feed, fertilizer and pesticides, cosmetics, detergents, as well as biodegradable plastics, pharmaceuticals and disinfectants. It can be made into fabrics and packaging, paints and varnishes, tubing, and liquid fuel. Basically, everything that petrochemicals are being used for, combined with every use known for sugar. You can drink the substance that runs your car, right out of the nozzle.

Assuming this miracle product lives up to its promise (and, so far, that seems to be the case), it could revolutionize the Earth’s ability to sustain us, essentially by linking us closer to the food chain. One important question remains, however. If we can manufacture fuel with less impact on the planet, will we humans (especially those in the wealthy West) continue to waste resources and kick the sustainability can down the road to the next generation? This is what the highly problematic Green Revolution did in the late 1950s and 60s.

I’m hopeful that this won’t be the case. Our reliance on technology, which is causing many of the global environmental issues we face today, could also provide some of the answers to living more sustainably.

Elio car
The Elio, 84mpg and $7,500 to buy. Truly, the car for a sustainable future.

Enter the Elio, a remarkably affordable car (less than $8,000 for a base model) that does 84 mpg. on the open road. In the words of Paul Elio:

To provide a fun-to-drive, super-economical personal transportation alternative, that’s affordable, safe, and environmentally friendly. We are committed to the American dream, creating American jobs, and bringing American automotive ingenuity to every vehicle we build. This is, and will remain our mission at Elio.”

Adding style and caché to living sustainably is no mean feat, but one that needs to happen if the United States and other developed nations are going to make the lifestyle changes that are so vitally needed.

This, more than anything, is why I’ve been so excited to join forces with the Earth Day Network (as well as the Smithsonian’s associated Earth Optimism Summit). It’s of paramount important to provide hope and a roadmap for people who – in the face of dramatically degrading planetary conditions  – are inspired to make a difference. Earth Day’s “Billion Acts of Green,” helps millions of people across the globe chart the course for a better future, for our generation and for those that come after us.



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