Cartoon by David Horsey
7 things we’ve learned about Earth since the last Earth Day
Vox: Earth Day turns 48 this Sunday, April 22, and Google is celebrating it with a Google Doodle of conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, who nudges us in a video a “do our part for this beautiful planet.”
When Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) founded Earth Day in 1970, his hope was to make the environment a political issue in an era where US rivers caught on fire and thick smog choked cities.
In many ways, it worked. Since then, major environmental laws have helped clean up much of the vivid toxic detritus in the soil, air, and water in the US. But our challenges today are no less daunting. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the loss of wilderness and species, and the acidification and pollution of the oceans have all become more acute — and more destabilizing.
In keeping with the tradition started by former Vox writers Brad Plumer and Joseph Stromberg, here are seven of the most troubling, intriguing, and encouraging things we learned about the Earth since the last Earth Day.
1) The plastic problem is even worse than we thought
One of the bleakest stories of the year so far was the report of a six-ton sperm whale washing up on the shores of southern Spain with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach, a grotesque sign of the alarming rate at which we’re dumping plastics into the ocean.
The plastic crisis is a truly global one, and the numbers are staggering: A 2015 study found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the ocean from land each year. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.
Since plastic is synthetic, there are few natural processes that break it down, allowing bags, straws, and packaging to linger for decades if not centuries. And we’re not very good at containing it to landfills. About 32 percent of plastics make out into nature, where it often end up in the bellies of fish, birds, and whales. And, as it turns out, potentially in our stomachs too.
In one investigation, the nonprofit Orb Media found plastic fibers in 83 percent of drinking water samples all over the world, with some of the highest levels in drinking fountains at the US Capitol. In a separate investigation published this year, it found microplastic particles in 93 percent of the bottled water samples it tested (250 bottles from 11 leading brands including Dasani and Aquafina).
These kinds of findings have prompted environmental activists pushing to reduce or end the use of disposable plastics. Curbing plastic pollution is a key theme in this year’s Earth Day and there’s a high-profile campaign underway to ban plastic straws in particular.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May called this week to ban plastic straws, swabs, and stirrers. Some researchers last year openly called for an international agreement to control plastic pollution. And there was one bit of hopeful news for potentially more effective disposal in the future: scientists have discovered an enzyme that can digest plastic.
2) We lost the last male Northern white Rhino
Another benchmark we’re obliged to revisit each Earth Day is how many species we’ve lost forever.
In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the beaverpond marstonia, a tiny freshwater snail found in Georgia, to be extinct. The Center for Biological Diversity called it the first species declared extinct under the Trump administration, a consequence of water overuse for agriculture and pollution.
Also in the last year, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, a bat found off the coast of Australia, was declared extinct. Three reptiles also went extinct on the island, including the chained gecko, the blue-tailed skink, and the whiptail skink, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Much of this is due to disease and predatory invasive species.
And some species are teetering on the brink of extinction. The last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan, died in March at the age of 45.
As the Northern White rhinos have been rapidly decimated by poaching, conservationists have tried desperate tactics to resuscitate them, including creating a Tinder profile for Sudan. The more viable strategy now is in vitro fertilization of a female Southern White Rhino with the eggs from the two remaining Northern White Rhino females and stored northern white rhino semen >>>