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Happy Earth Day

Well, it’s Earth Day, a movement that started 40 years ago after the first colour pictures of Earth from space were returned by the Apollo astronauts. Astronauts had always said that seeing the planet from space was a life-changing experience, but when Apollo 8 sent back this picture of the Earth rising over the surface of the moon in 1968, everyone was able to see how fragile our planetary life support system was. In 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and in 1970 Apollo 13 went through its dramatic “successful failure”, turning attention again to how unforgiving and harsh space is. In April 1970, days after Apollo 13 splashed down, the first Earth Day was celebrated, and the Apollo images of the Earth became the icon of this new sense of environmental awareness.

Earth Day isn’t supposed to be like St. Patrick’s Day, where most people do stuff they would never do the rest of the year – it’s a yearly reminder of the importance of taking care of the planet every day. Despite recent findings of planets around other stars, there is no other known planet humans can move to even if we had the technology to get there. With the ongoing debate about climate change, a lot of people find themselves genuinely uncertain what to believe – alas, a victory for the climate change deniers, who spend big money to sow this sort of dissent. People love to believe the science that supports them not having to do anything different, so it’s an easier sell than the science that tells us we’re going downhill in a rocket-powered handcart. But this debate actually masks the broader point.

It doesn’t actually matter if climate change will cause a global temperature rise of only 1 degree or as much as 5 degrees, or whether it’s over the next 20 or 50 or 100 years; it doesn’t matter if the science is still uncertain, or that there are other effects like solar activity which are beyond our control. Whether climate change will affect this generation or the next, or whether it will be some other environmental issue like ozone depletion, or smog, or the cumulative garbage of an increasing population living in a disposeable world – that doesn’t really matter either. The basic fact is this: The way we live our lives now will affect our children’s lives, and their children’s lives. They have no other place to go, and we’re leaving a big mess to be cleaned up.

I ask my two-year old to clean up her toys before bed, not because they will continue to pile up until they drive us out of our house, and not because they pose a hazard to our continued existence in the house, but because her mess affects other people and it’s just the right thing to do – and she gets that. I hope that humanity can find the wisdom of a two-year old in its Earth Day celebrations this year.

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Scott Young

Manager of Science Communications and Visitor Experiences

“Scott is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Manitoba Museum, developing astronomy and science programs. He has been an informal science educator for thirty years, working in the planetarium and science centre field both at The Manitoba Museum and also at the Alice G. Wallace Planetarium in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Scott is an active amateur astronomer and a past-President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.”