We already know what we must do to prevent the worst aspects of climate change from happening and, more importantly, we have done something like it before. When I helped organize the first Earth Day celebration on the Caltech campus in 1970, joining 2,000 other campuses in a massive national Teach-In, we collectively started a national environmental movement that over two short decades reduced pollution dramatically and protected nature everywhere.
Almost all of the environmental protection legislation, at both national and state levels, that is in place today was enacted in much less than 10 years after Earth Day - the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, etc. This should give great hope to today’s campaigners that we can in fact deal with climate change through legislation during the first half of the 2020 decade, 50 years after the first Earth Day..
Even with these legislative successes, many people realized environmental decay was symptomatic of a larger issue. Modern society had lost touch with its kinship with the Earth, an understanding possessed by all preindustrial societies: we ultimately depend on the health of the natural world for our collective survival. In the 1970s we acknowledged that we had abandoned our collective responsibility to steward the earth’s resources for many generations into the future.
We all wanted immediate gratification (and still do), which meant living far beyond the sustainable capacity of the earth to support us. This sense of a deeper spiritual crisis gave rise to the consciousness-raising movements of the time, continuing today with a growing recognition of the need for mindfulness and meditation, both as an indwelling practice and as a means to generate insight and strength for daily life.
We may be able to halt the worst effects of climate change through concerted action over the next 30 years, but will we also deal with the spiritual crisis of modern life, the lack of meaning for so many people, and our cavalier attitude toward overusing the Earth’s resources? Even if we are successful in arresting the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, will we still be using more resources than Earth can supply on an annual basis?