The first edition of Scientific American hit the streets on Aug. 28, 1845. The ornate flag on the front cover—an etching—embraces, among other things, a charming steamboat, a giant bridge, a windmill, and a gushing waterfall alongside a plain, utilitarian building (hydroelectricity?). Engineering marvels all, illustrating, in the vernacular of the day, man's dominion over nature.
"THE ADVOCATE OF INDUSTRY AND ENTERPRISE, AND JOURNAL OF MECHANICAL AND OTHER IMPROVEMENTS," boasted the all-caps tagline under the flag.
The main article was about better railway passenger cars—elegant and with improved "atmospheric resistance," able to run with a "steadiness hardly equalled by a steamboat in still water..." Alongside ran a list of 1844's U.S. patents. Virtually all of them were to do with improvements to agriculture and food production, from better beehives to better ploughs.
People were eager, then as now, for news about science and technology. The early Scientific American came out every Thursday morning in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, featuring authors from Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein expounding on the wonders made possible by science.
Fast forward 172 years as we approach this year's Earth Day on April 22. An event not quite as old as SciAm, but one with almost as much pedigree and a kind of "strange bedfellow" to the ideals of that early magazine.
In 1962, when he was a U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson approached John F. and Bobby Kennedy about starting an Earth Day. Nelson, who grew up in a teeny Wisconsin village, came to be known as America's No. 1 conservationist. His idea was to harness the anti-Vietnam War sentiment spilling into the streets in the '60s and concentrate it into concern over environmental degradation.
Earth Day happened, eventually. But it took another president (Nixon!) and seven years to do it.
It's crazy to think Earth Day started nearly 60 years ago. But it's even crazier that, while we humans should be pushing harder than ever for environmental progress, we seem to be slacking off.
After this year's Earth Hour—started in Australia to express solidarity on climate change—I was so disappointed to learn that despite efforts like Whistler Blackcomb ski runs going dark, use of electricity actually increased in B.C. It's equally sad BC Hydro has stopped monitoring separate municipalities for Earth Hour—sort of like stopping sports teams from wearing distinctive jerseys.
Where do we stand, people?
I'm not the only one who's wondering what's happening with environmental progress. Are we getting burnt out on these important collective markers? Do we feel hopeless? as in, burn those bloody lights! We're all going to hell, anyway. Is the ever-increasing number of people and our ever-growing demand for "more" and "better" stuff overcoming conservation efforts?
When that first edition of Scientific American rolled off the presses in 1845, there were about 1.2 billion people on the planet—fewer than the number of people in China alone today, and about one sixth of our current world population.
It's a really straightforward math equation, but most of us we can't seem to get our heads around it. Fixed amount of resources. Growing number of humans using them up. Result? Duh ... But Nelson and many others—scientists, policy makers, philosophers, environmentalists—have "gotten it" for decades. "The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become...," Nelson said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2001, when he was 84.
Earth Overshoot Day has been calculated since the 1970s by the Global Footprint Network using UN data. It's the date when we humans officially use up all the resources the Earth can generate in a year. In 2016, Overshoot Day was Aug. 8. In 2017, after years of improvement, something disconcerting happened. Overshoot Day was six days earlier than the previous year. Why do I think it will be even earlier this year? Hmmm, let me count the ways...
The biggest biodiversity study in 10 years was released in March, a month before Earth Day. The UN-backed study states that human destruction of nature is "rapidly eroding the world's capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people," reported The Guardian, one of only two mainstream media outlets to cover the study.
The risks of biodiversity loss are so great (fisheries, for instance, in the Asia-Pacific region are on course to hit zero by 2048), they should be considered on the same scale as climate change.
The double-edged sword, or see-saw action, of all that glorious science and technology lauded in the mid-19th century—and today—is that, yes, its use or misuse can also get us into trouble. The biodiversity report, for example, notes the harmful role of overusing pesticides and fertilizers in environmental degradation. And we all know where burning all that coal steamboats used got us—along with all the other fossil fuels.
The beauty, though, is we can apply that same science and technology to get ourselves out of this environmental swamp. If there's a will, there's a way. But the bigger Q is: if there's a way—and there is!—is there also a will?
I hope so. On that note, I give Mr. Nelson the last word: "What's the real wealth of a country? The real wealth is air, water, soil, forests, minerals, scenic beauty, oceans, wildlife habitat, biodiversity. Take that away and you've got a wasteland."
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who says do something kind for the planet we love on Earth Day—every day.