50 Years on Planet Earth

One hot evening in the west San Fernando Valley of Southern California 50 years ago, a pregnant Jewish mother of two was sitting on the hood of a blue 1963 Chevy Bel Air. There was no air conditioning in the house, so she and her neighbors were trying to catch a bit of an evening breeze outside. Residents in that suburban neighborhood would often be outside, as would their kids. This was long before the age of cable TV, video games and cellular phones.

The woman slid off the car with a bump, realized that that had been a fateful bump and called out to tell her husband that it was time to head off to the maternity ward. That Bel Air sped off getting around 14 miles per gallon (or 20 liters per 100 km). On the way to the hospital, the expecting couple drove past the horse ranches and orange groves that characterized the west San Fernando Valley. Those ranches and groves would be long gone by 2018 – with only isolated orange trees surrounded by the lawns of the track houses.

I was born the morning after that woman, my mom, slid off the car hood.

50 years later, I drove to work at Haifa’s Technion in an electric car, which is part of a car-sharing program. Unlike the Bel Air, the Renault Zoe emits no tail-pipe emissions.  But even if it did, the average 2016 fuel economy of cars in the OECD is now 31 mpg (7.6 liters per 100 km) – a significant improvement. There are also seat belts, unleaded gas, catalytic converters and on-board computer systems.  What a difference 50 years makes for the environment.  Every car is much more efficient, much safer and much cleaner.  On the other hand, whereas there were around 47 million cars in the world in 1968, there are now more than a billion. Some emissions have declined (lead) and others have increased (carbon dioxide), while massive amounts of land have converted to parking lots, highways and city streets.

I’m not sure if my professional trajectory was determined by the spirit of ‘68, but the more I look into it, it was definitely a watershed year for global environment. Three books published that year set a global environmental agenda. To wit: Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” warned us of the emerging environmental implications of population growth, Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” provided an elegy for the destruction of the nature of the American west in the face of unrestrained growth

NASA / Bill Anders

and F. Buckminster Fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” reminded us that we live in a closed system with limited resources. Astronaut Frank Borman concluded 1968 by watching the Earth rise over the moon from Apollo 8 and offering his blessings to the folks back home “from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

The first Earth Day was right around the corner from 1968, to be followed by Richard Nixon’s profound contribution to environmental policy: The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. While not a panacea, those policies took the US in the right direction, and showed that policy is crucial for preventing environmental degradation.  50 years later, in 2018, another Republican president began to systematically dismember those policies and the others that had been created over those five interim decades. Two steps forward, two steps back.

A half century after my mom slid off the car hood, I celebrated my 50th birthday. I started by working with my environmental policy students on a recommendation for addressing damages associated to wild boars foraging in residential neighborhoods, helping prepare my doctoral student for her upcoming meeting with managers in a Scottish national park (she’s ready), and writing up draft recommendations for ecological planning in Israel for the next thirty years. All with a little Facebook birthday indulgence thrown in the mix. So, its the spirit of ’68 meets 2018.

With loss of global biodiversity, climate change, and accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans, we have much to do to assure continuity of human life of the planet. But during the past 50 years, we’ve demonstrated our ability to improve our behavior, our policies and our technologies, so we should be able to do so again in the next 50.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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