My first column about Earth Day appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in April 1970 to mark the very first Earth Day. I titled it “Be Careful Where You Throw that
Molotov Cocktail: You Might Burn Down Our River,” to remind readers that the Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames in 1969 because, as Smithsonian Magazine put it, “The water was nearly always covered in oil slicks, and it bubbled like a deadly stew.” Molotov cocktail was in reference to the social unrest of that period, when, sadly, there were a few occasions when Molotov cocktails were thrown by rioters.
At the time, we knew that we had to take action to save our planet, and some actions were taken, including making great progress toward cleaning up the Cuyahoga and other rivers. I grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and remember an almost constant haze of smog, but when I was there a few weeks ago, I could actually see the surrounding mountains. To steal a phrase from former president Barack Obama, “yes we can” clean up our environment. But we better get on it soon. A recent U.N. report on Climate Change prompted U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to warn, “We are on a fast track to climate disaster,” which could include “major cities under water, unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”
It’s no joke. Climate change in an existential threat. Covid-19, which killed an estimated 6.2 million people, according to the World Health Organization, should serve as a warning of what can happen if we fail to take adequate action in the face of scientific evidence.
The solution to climate change includes a dramatic reduction in the use of fossil fuels and other efforts by governments, industry and individuals. And, while efforts by individuals alone can’t solve the problem, we all have a role to play.
Before I go on, I must confess that I’m part of the problem. During the pandemic I’ve increased my use of ordering goods online and — sometimes — I return things I’ve ordered, which means they have to take a round trip on fossil fuel guzzling vehicles. I haven’t abandoned that practice, I think about it when I order and try to avoid buying things that aren’t necessary.
I haven’t yet abandoned my gas water heater and furnace in favor of cleaner electric ones, but I likely will. And, of course, I spend a lot of time using a PC and accessing the internet, which uses energy at my house and through all the servers that I’m connecting to. I do drive an electric car, but even it has some environmental impact in terms of the materials and energy used to build it. There is an environmental cost to everything we buy and consume, even if it uses less energy than whatever it’s replacing.
Even though I’ve written about how they waste electricity, I haven’t unplugged all the chargers in my house, which suck up a tiny amount of “phantom power” even when they’re not in use. Individually, most of these chargers use substantially less than a dollar’s worth of power a year when not in use, but when you multiply them by the millions, it adds up.
There is more I can do. For example, I’m still eating meat, which is responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Meat, specially beef, also has a big impact on water pollution and scarcity.
I don’t have solar, but my municipal utility (Palo Alto) says its electrical supply is “100% carbon neutral.” But, in a FAQ, the utility agency admits that not every kilowatt comes from renewable sources because “In a dry year and/or on a cloudy day, renewable and hydroelectric energy supply may be insufficient to meet demand.” Still, when you consider the financial and environmental impact of putting solar on my roof, I don’t feel so bad about using municipal energy
What we can do
There are things we can do. For one, we can make sure our PCs, Macs and other devices are configured to go into sleep mode when they’re not in use, which greatly reduces their power. We can unplug or turn off lights and devices when they’re not in use and stop using devices that we don’t need to use. As I will discuss in an upcoming column, I “cut the cord” and discontinued my cable service in exchange for streaming. Removing four set-top boxes will save 263 kilowatt hours and about $51 a year at my current marginal electrical rate.
We can also be more thoughtful about buying new devices, which require energy use to manufacture and ship. Hanging on to our devices for a little longer or at least making sure they are recycled or made available to be used by other people can add up to significant savings of fossil fuels and carbon waste. Apple and other smartphone makers try to get us to buy a new phone every year or two, but it would be environmentally more responsible if we didn’t upgrade so often. So, even if you see me or other tech journalist writing a glowing review of a new iPhone or other gadget, ask yourself if you really need it and whether it will really change your life. It would be hypocritical for me to judge you if you succumb, but know there is a cost beyond whatever it is you’re paying in dollars.
Probably the biggest thing individuals can do is to put pressure on governments and large companies to take every possible step to reduce energy consumption and pollution. That includes supporting strong environmental protection laws The United Nation’s Environmental Program has a “The Six-sector solution to the climate crisis,” which describes how the energy sector, agriculture and food waste, industry, transport, buildings and cities and “nature based solutions” can, together, reduce carbon emissions and limit temperature rise.
Let’s help our children and their children’s generation celebrate future Earth Days in a cleaner world.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.