These are a collection of Earth Day articles written by David Mahood.  They range in topic from climate change to monarch butterflies.  These essays reflect the opinion of the author and are not intended to represent the opinion of the organization as a whole.  Reprint rights are granted with author acknowledgement.  It seemed perfectly appropriate this first entry to start with something that we must begin to understand in more depth: sustainability.

The myriad of definitions of the term are all variations of the theme of not compromising future generations with our current actions. Okay that is broad, I admit, but it is the essence of the term. Nowadays we hear about the triple bottom line and environmental ethics and sustainable certifications. Still, it doesn’t change a thing about sustainability. If our products, actions or associations compromise the ability of future generations to have the same natural experience on Earth as we have had then we may not be sustainable.

Hmmm, doesn’t that indict all of us? Yes, to a degree. As a result, we all collectively need to be paying better attention. As many of you have heard me say in the past, here we are conducting this never- before attempted lab experiment on the only planet we call home by altering its chemical balance and we still are debating whether a customer will accept a surcharge for converting a hotel to a percentage clean energy? Well I guess I would pay for staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant that isn’t contributing to my descendants’ demise, wouldn’t you? Don’t feel guilty. Sustainability is compromised by many factors. Population growth in developing nations is as much a factor as recycling rates in America. Agricultural conversion of rainforest in the Amazon is as much of a factor as melting ice sheets in Greenland. But with this knowledge that sustainability is a global issue, do we have a specific responsibility to be sustainable in the U.S.? Yes! Yes, incontrovertibly, and forever. According to the Travel Industry Association, domestic and international travelers spent 700 billion dollars in the U.S. in 2006. This produced 178 billion dollars in payroll income. Sustainability means balancing that economic gain with strict environmental standards and a commitment to social responsibility. After acknowledging that, we can finally get somewhere. Sustainability is all about achieving a balance. Can products be sustainable? Can companies be sustainable? Can people be sustainable? If we recognize that we have to achieve a balance with the personal and business lives we lead, we can then approach sustainability with all of these areas. Consequently, the recognition of this allows us to be discerning with the information that is being marketed. Unless your company’s primary focus is preserving the biological hotspots of the world, you probably shouldn’t be promoting your company as “totally green.” Unless your company is a non-profit with 100% of its earnings going to support a people in crisis, you shouldn’t be marketing your “total commitment to sustainability.”

Now, mind you, I am all for sustainable improvements and the steps toward achieving a balance but let’s be clear about the concept of sustainability, and let’s stop using the term so nonchalantly. Once we truly grasp its meaning, we will find it is the most difficult challenge of our times.

Through Myrtle’s Eyes.  Earth Day 2016

Myrtle has survived well into her eighties—no one really knows for sure how old she is.  We went to see her the other day, and as Earth Day 46 nears, it made me think about all that she has witnessed in her long life.  Myrtle has been around since the Great Depression and survived World War II.  She may even have been on a beach for the 1969 lunar landing of Armstrong and Aldrin.  Well… Myrtle hasn’t actually seen any of these special events because she is officially a Chelonia mydas, commonly known as a green sea turtle, and lives at One Central Wharf, Boston, MA 02210–the New England Aquarium.  Myrtle is somewhat of a celebrity in marine research and conservation circles because it is widely believed that she is the oldest sea turtle in captivity.  Sea turtles in the wild don’t often live that long, so Myrtle has truly seen more than her kindred species.  Sea turtles are reptiles that have been around since the dinosaurs, and they’ve witnessed much in their 100 million or so years.  And Myrtle may know more than we realize as a marine reptile. One expert, Jean Beasley, an octogenarian herself, who founded the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in 1997, said to me recently, “I think most animals are far more sentient than we give them credit for. Yes, they recognize voices. We’ve had turtles that would not eat from someone whose voice they didn’t recognize.”

Myrtle started her mad dash on some Southeastern Atlantic beach at a time when green sea turtles were abundant and dunes were still pristine.  Seagrass and green algae dotted the shallow coastal waters, and marine travel was dominated by living, breathing creatures swaying with the Gulf stream currents.  By the time Myrtle came back to that same beach to begin motherhood, the ozone layer had thinned, the nuclear age had begun, coastal development was reshaping the beaches, moonlight was outshone by exterior spotlights and neon signage, and life on land was much more confusing.  By that time, Myrtle had already beaten the odds of a 1000:1 and avoided the market for her meat, shell, oil, and skin.  But, like all female sea turtles, she would never know if her eggs were allowed to hatch.

As Myrtle turned middle-age, she would compete for food with endless barbed fishing lines and massive nets scraping the ocean floor disrupting everything in their path including many of her chelonian friends who wouldn’t live out the day.  Her life was made even more confusing with a new type of jellyfish that she couldn’t digest: clear plastic.  And unexplained tumors were showing up on many of her closest friends as her ocean home became more polluted.   Concerned marine scientists would establish the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Earth Day, and ban DDT, aerosols, and ocean dumping, and still her population continued to decline.  Citizens of coastal communities would slowly begin to protect nesting sites, as Karen and Jean Beasley did on the Carolina Coast.  They would educate others about the odds of one hatchling making it to Myrtle’s age.  And back then few sea turtles would get a second chance since rehabilitation hospitals were virtually nonexistent.  All of the seven species would end up on the list of endangered species.

Myrtle in her eighties no longer faces the perils of today’s oceans and she gets fed daily; in fact, she gets fed first because she hounds the aquarium divers otherwise.  And nowadays she circles the glass enclosure carefree, rests without fear, and monitors the passersby unfazed.  Likely she doesn’t know that her former habitat is warming and rising or that her natural food source is dwindling.  Possibly, she is unaware that coral reefs are dying worldwide, and that plastic pellets are as common as sand on the ocean floor. Maybe she knows that her daily visitors represent a species that has reached seven billion and has reshaped the planet’s landscape permanently.  I’m sure Myrtle would accept freedom willingly but she has been forced into retirement like we all will be someday.  In her sagacity as an elder sea-surfer, Myrtle has a lot to say to us on the outside.  And I can see it in her eyes as she floats along the glass one last time: Just keep paddling on.

One Green Deed.  Earth Day 2015

For the past year I’ve been writing a nature book about preserving our earth, the third big rock in our solar system.  We may be clever enough someday to colonize other rocks and spacewalk our species into an interminable future.  I seriously hope so.  But I am truly worried about this planet: The one celebrated on this day, Earth Day, in 1970. After decades of consuming books, lectures, and documentaries, I’ve accumulated a good deal of knowledge that I felt compelled to share with others, like-minded or not.  And along this bumpy road, I met some incredible environmentalists:  Scientists, non-scientists, activists, non-activists, writers, and non-writers.    Now, forty-five years after the first Earth Day, I’m half way through my book.  It has been an extraordinary privilege to reach back out to some of these environmental pioneers and ask them to reflect on the same question:  If you had one green deed you would like to see heeded, adopted, and passed on, what would it be and why?

Back in 1997 when I embarked on my quixotic expedition to explore the happenings of our planet and reinvent my career, I was so naive.  Chasing environmental windmills is the proverbial act of naiveté, many of us now know.  It is a heavy task to convince others that we’re not taking care of our planet.  Today, the term global warming has become a joke if you’re a non-believer, and a hot potato if you’re of a different view.   To hear non-scientists like me make the case for global climate change stuck in the oncoming traffic of fossil-fuel-derived energy companies is akin to the Monroe Doctrine for Spanish conquistadors. It never mattered to me that I would face opposition to my approach toward how we must care for our planet and its bounty.  I still am naive to a degree, better informed but strategically naive.

Well, I decided the problem wasn’t the science, it was the relationship of the science.  The general audience shouldn’t be daunted by science, and by no means afraid to participate in environmental conservation.  Outside of astronauts, our generation will never have to spacewalk.  Outside of the sun going supernova unexpectedly, our generation will survive.  I am distraught about compromised survival though.  Future generations will inhabit what we were delinquent in managing. That point never ceases to bother me, and that point should be obvious to us all.  I mean, if you scroll down on any credible online news site, you’ll see a nature report indicating that yet another alarming milestone has been eclipsed.

I have hosted, participated, and keynoted many environmental discussions since 1997, and I have spoken about sustainability on two continents.  I founded a business that espoused sustainability as a fundamental principle.  None of this would have been even remotely interesting to anyone except for the passionate environmentalists who I met along the way.  The book, One Green Deed Spawns Another, is the parallel story of the circuitous route I took to become an environmental consultant and writer, and the one that brought me in contact with amazing minds, each of whom share their vision for the one green deed they’d like to see universally adopted.  Anyone would have been affected as I have been all these years in the wake of this knowledge, and to hear it from so wide a perspective as I have is worth sharing.  Therefore, my one green deed is to connect, and, in earnest, one green deed will spawn another.

Earth Day 2014
The One Way Flight of the Danaus Plexippus

On this forty-fourth anniversary of the first Earth Day, I wanted to recognize the state of the Danaus plexxipus, or as we more commonly refer to them, monarch butterflies.  Migratory creatures have always fascinated me but few as much as the monarch, which migrates like songbirds.  Lately they have been appearing in the news for the wrong reason.  They’ve earned attention because of their drastic decline in numbers.  Their annual cycle of migration is one that requires the transformation of four generations of the species.  The two-thousand mile or more journey of the monarch butterfly from North America to Mexico is one of storybook fantasy.  An inner compass steers them to familiar plots of plants year after year much like sea turtle migratory behavior.  But their compass has been compromised of late by various sources, one of which may be anthropogenic climate change.  Imagine if your chance at becoming a parent was reliant on a very specific set of factors: one region, one plant, one climate.  The ecological balance of species survival is so fragile, and we are tipping the scale for these majestic butterflies.   For the monarchs, changes in weather disrupt their flight pattern, their food supply, and their eggs.  Climate change may not be reversible, but the culling of milkweed plants certainly is.  While Mexico has made strides to reduce impact on this butterfly’s Southern habitat, we in the north have not.  Our incessant need to eradicate weeds, including milkweed, may trigger the end of a variety of native species, including monarchs.  It may also be responsible for the alarming loss of all of our pollinators in the U.S., not just Danaus plexxipus.

Monarchs have been on the decline for a decade now.  I’m far from an entomologist but I have firsthand knowledge of this.  My uncle, Bob Clark, who owns the family farm in Upstate New York, decided years ago to allow the growth of milkweed on a former grazing field because they enjoyed seeing the monarchs every year.  Back then he told me that his field was full of butterflies and that he was going to keep it for that purpose.  Last week at a family get-together, I asked him if he still had the field and if they had continued to come back.  He just shook his head.  “Hardly any,” he said, “I barely saw any last summer and saw almost no signs of chrysalis (pupa stage) on the leaves.”  His experience is similar to others.  According to official reports their decline in Mexico has reached an alarming state.  The occupied area of monarchs has shrunk by over 50% in just two years.*

Nature never ceases to amaze me.  Of the millions of species that inhabit our planet, the Danaus plexippus has to be one of the most colorful.  As a kid I loved seeing monarch butterflies chase my back throughout the summer.    Increasingly we are finding out that relying on single crop production has negative consequences, which suggests we should revisit traditional agricultural methods that support heterogeneous fields.  My request for this anniversary of Earth Day, 1970, is for those of us who can to plant some milkweed and put away the herbicides.  After all, without species diversity, it becomes very black and white.

* Wines, Michael. “Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades.” nytimes.com.  The New York Times, March 13, 2013. Web. 9, January, 2014.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/science/earth/monarch-migration-plunges-to-lowest-level-in-decades.html

Earth Day 2013
Oh, Sandy, 2012

“And Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us. This pier lights our carnival life forever. Oh, love me tonight, for I may never see you again.”* When Springsteen penned those lyrics four decades ago, an homage to Asbury Park, New Jersey, he had no idea Sandy would be remembered for the storm that took his words so literally, and would become a reckoning for Coastal Atlantic communities. With almost a quarter of the U.S. population affected by her wrath, how do we preserve a way of life for so many? With damages in New Jersey alone totaling more than 30 billion dollars, many commercial establishments will struggle to return. But, they must return. Boardwalks and Jersey beaches are a link to intergenerational memories and an economic lynchpin for a state with 130 miles of coastline. Sandy will spawn other once-in-a-lifetime storms and intense climatic activity will challenge seasonal industries in the future but sustainable commercial development in the form of minimizing beach encroachment and erosion, night pollution, energy and water waste, and carbon emissions, to name a few, can become the girders of a sunny, sustainable Jersey Shore. Recognizing that we yearn for the ocean, and that escaping the summer heat of our Eastern cities for the shoreline is an annual rite, we will need to rethink our relationship with nature.

Instead of subsidizing rebuilding efforts with diminishing funds, we must build with Sandy in mind. We’ve reached an impasse and simply cannot afford to ignore the impact of changing climatic activity. With taxpayer-based funds supporting the federal flood insurance program, now running in the red, we better start using climate predictors in conjunction with architects and insurers. In a time of political paralysis it would be financially prudent to quit allocating funds for unsustainable building practices. And even if the biggest developers can get flood insurance at a premium, does that afford them the right to gamble on nature. Only Atlantic City would take those odds. Raising sea walls is becoming tantamount to playing Russian roulette with water. We need to respect the tidal push of hurricane waters and build to suit nature. Instead of Insurers raising premiums to cover new structures that may not survive storms to come, we need to design with a better understanding of the consequences of rising water and temperatures so the sandcastles of the future don’t wash up on Main Street.

Asbury Park, like all Eastern beach communities, won’t forget Sandy anytime soon. Coastal developers everywhere shouldn’t either. We cannot place hotels and other commercial buildings in the path of the next Sandy. We don’t know when the next superstorm will come and level beaches along a thousand mile swath we just know that it will come. Let’s be ready next time. Let’s allow nature to emote without tragedy. The Jersey Shore, for one, deserves it. If only Madame Marie were still around.

Earth Day 2012
What Must They Be Thinking?

It is the naiveté of us non-biologists to ascribe human feelings to our fellow species, a phenomenon called anthropomorphism. I do it often because in my child-like wonder of nature I believe that an adult gorilla conjugates emotions in greater depths than we know from scientific studies. Maybe I humanized the protagonist from the powerful novel, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, more than was intended by the author. But other than the conservationists dedicated to these critically endangered species of the world, who else is going to look out for them and who else is going to tell their stories? We humans perched at the top of the evolutionary pyramid have made it increasingly difficult for many signature species to coexist. I decided this forty-second anniversary of Earth Day, to offer my implausible interpretation of what three signature species are thinking in today’s precarious times.

The various species of elephants are universally well known as one of the largest mammalian creatures as well as one of the most intelligent in existence. Recently it has been observed that elephants cry at the death of a family member, and the herd will join together in a ritualistic formation as an expression of loss and respect for the deceased. If they can perceive loss in such profound ways, it isn’t hard to theorize that they are well aware that they are now prisoners of a planet they once roamed freely. Intelligent creatures don’t accept enslavement easily, a lesson not lost on Homo sapiens. They must know that sustainability doesn’t apply to them. I don’t want to see elephants resigned to zoos and circuses, and I’m pretty sure they don’t either. So, the next time you see elephants in public lined together, you might wonder if it is a mass funeral.

The state of our oceans is increasingly impaired and the large cetaceans must know it too. Our crude understanding of the songs of humpback whales gives us very few clues. Humpback whales sing complex songs, albeit among males only, and communicate effectively in high and low frequencies. Perhaps these songs are nothing other than whale pick-up lines but I doubt it. In our globalized world of commerce, we have introduced a new invasive species called container ships. With the amount of cargo ships outnumbering remaining humpback populations threefold, these songs must be getting a little desperate. With oceanic pollution and warming temperatures on the rise, the songs of the humpback are the new dirges of the deep: planetary distress signals.

By now I would think that eastern lowland gorillas have about seen it all. As notoriously shy creatures, imagine a habitat as violent as theirs. With humans, a genetic second cousin, slaughtering each other by the thousands and deforesting the rich landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eastern lowland gorillas couldn’t have worse neighbors. Being squeezed into a shrinking homeland, trapped and slaughtered for meat or trophies or killed protecting their babies from illegal trade, these gorillas of the Congo can’t possibly have found genetic evolution to their liking. Nor can they comprehend our mining of their riverbeds for metals used in our ubiquitous cell phones. I’m sure there is a word for Coltan mining in gorilla lexicon but I don’t think it is freedom of communication. A 30 year-old dominant silverback can’t beat his chest hard enough to ward off this enemy. Further, these remaining 2,500 eastern lowland gorillas don’t need cell phones to spread the news among their band that they’re in trouble.

No one truly knows what they must be thinking but it raises the question. What on earth are we thinking?

Earth Day 2011A vote is heard in the night

This anniversary of the first Earth Day is marked by an act of indignity toward the spirit of the movement, and to those intrepid leaders who rallied millions in an attempt to influence politicians and a government that they mostly distrusted. Forty-one years later, we have reason to distrust them again. One of the critical building blocks of a healthy natural environment is species diversity. Those early environmental activists recognized this and helped establish the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Imagine if you can, every time you pulled out paper currency from your purse or wallet, you saw a picture of our recently extinct national symbol. Or imagine that a bison, a denizen of our former western landscape, was extinct in one of the great mass slaughters of the Cenozoic era. And to think, these are species we actually revered. In a historic, if not inconceivable, sleight of hand, the government has delisted the gray wolf from federal endangered species protection in Montana and Idaho. Since the gray wolf also resides in Oregon, Wyoming, and Washington, I hope someone fully explained the concept of state borders to them since they are not known as homebodies. This act, brought forward by Senator Tester of Montana and Congressman Simpson of Idaho, was attached to the recent budget bill(HR 1473) signed last minute to avoid a government shut-down. How this senseless act is going to significantly help balance our budget has yet to be disclosed.

The idea of delisting a species just reintroduced to the region in 1995 is a cruel twist of fate for those seeking to restore the region’s natural ecosystem. By all accounts their return has had a positive effect on the region including the repopulation of important native hardwood species like aspens. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time the area rid itself of wolves. Citizens of the region were successful in eradicating wolves early on in the twentieth century. Ostensibly, removing federal protection doesn’t assure extinction for the species but turning over control of the species to states politically dominated by ranchers and hunters, doesn’t bode well for them. Soon, these very hunters and ranchers will be targeting wolves, make no mistake about it. With declining breeding pairs in Yellowstone National Park, where they are still federally protected, one can imagine what will happen in states where they aren’t? Without safe buffer zones, culling of the species could have a permanent impact. And don’t be fooled by reports that wolves are running rampant, devouring livestock at every corner. According to a 2006 report by The National Agricultural Statistics Service, more livestock were lost to domestic dogs and vultures than wolves. Even cattle rustling, yes, cattle rustling, was responsible for five times more cows lost overall versus wolf predation.* So how did we take this giant leap backward? It is another act of politics manipulating science. In a period where scientists are warning of a pending mass extinction of species, delisting gray wolves is an ecological paradox.

It is time for us to march again, to rally again. It is time for us to promote science over politics, to speak out to our elected officials on behalf of those who cannot. To carry the baton of those brave Americans who enacted the ESA into law. On this Earth Day anniversary, few should be howling victory for the delisting budget maneuver pulled by Montana and Idaho politicians. We can hold out faith however that they will encourage their constituents to build eco-friendly straw bale houses now that the big bad wolf won’t be huffing and puffing anymore.

*The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Losses of Cattle and Calves: Predator and Non-Predator -Number of Head and Total Value.” May 5, 2006

Earth Day 2010
Earth Day Reflection

Today, the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, arrives at an uncertain time for the environmental movement. The initial bipartisan effort, which was the brainchild of Senator Nelson of Wisconsin and others, was a massive outpouring of support for what seemed so simple back then: preserving the planet from pollution and unnecessary harm as a result of unregulated industrial waste. Still, forty years later, it is worth noting that despite all of the public sentiment for cleaner water, air, and land for future generations, we have made baby steps. With the possible exception of the Montreal Protocol, which produced swift and thorough action assuring that our life supporting ozone layer would not erode, we have had few global environmental victories. What many Americans quickly grasped in 1970 has become far more confusing today. Why are we still losing the carbon battle? Why do we still have days of unhealthy smog levels? Why are we still fouling our oceans and waterways? Why are we not preserving our fellow species? Most importantly, why aren’t we all involved in grassroots efforts to bring greater awareness to the multitude of issues facing our planet, Earth?

I think it is time to renew our goodwill toward the environment. Get reacquainted with why we first embraced the concept of sustainability. Let’s not leave this movement in the hands of compromised corporate leaders or risk- averse politicians. Without strong public action, like that of the original footsoldiers of the 70’s, we cannot expect to see radical change. Just think if the new decade created the next Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, or the next Earth Day.

We are of one political stripe when it comes to the environment. We are of one mind when it comes to what we can achieve for our descendants. Let’s spend this Earth Day reissuing our memberships to bluer oceans, greener grasses, clearer skies, and to sowing seeds one young mind at a time.

April 20, 2011