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Is Earth Day a waste of time?

Earth Day: Another
gimmick day full of false promises and empty pledges or a day of reflection?

Borneo rainforest, photo by R. Butler

So today is Earth Day. You may look at Earth Day as another useless
“holiday” that appears on your calendar, yet does not warrant an actual
vacation day, where people parade around about trees or not driving, CEOs stand up to talk about their environmental stewardship as a PR strategy and Hallmark, ironically, sells more cards. Another gimmick day full of false promises and empty pledges to make real environmentally-motivated change, while everything remains regretfully
the same.

Well, perhaps this Earth Day you should pause for a little reflection.
Step back, watch the kids dressed up as butterflies and trees dancing in your city
park or main street while adults drink their organic wine and eco-friendly
microbrewed beers, and think about what you can and will honestly do to reduce
the weight of your impact on the world around you. Maybe you will make more
of an effort to recycle those bottles and cans that sometimes end up in your
trash or actually take the time to cut those six pack plastic rings, because you have seen those pictures of sea creatures, and it hurt you to look at them. Maybe you will glance at the origin of the wood listed on the tag before you buy
your next set of garden furniture. Indonesia? That might be a
problem. Maybe you will think twice about tossing that cigarette butt
out your window, and not because of a fear of starting a brush fire or getting caught and having to pay a fine, but simply to be decent. What is keeping you from showing a basic level of respect for the environment that provides you with so much? Is it laziness, greed, indifference? It cannot be ignorance. My point is, today, on Earth Day, you should take a moment to consider what a nice place Planet Earth is and what you can do to help
keep it that way. Life is short. If that is your excuse, think about the grandchildren you have or the ones you hope to have someday. You may not see a significant change in the quality of life on Earth in your lifetime, but in two generations, there will be.

For me, it was not an Earth Day that got me started thinking about the
world around me. What got me involved with running an
environment-oriented web site was a personal experience in the
rainforest of Borneo.

– – –

Lingering beside a small stream in the Malaysian rainforest of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, I watch the water move swiftly over worn, round stones. The pace of the flow quickens as the stream cascades over a short waterfall into a clear pool. Vibrantly colored butterflies in shades of yellow, orange, and green flirt with columns of light that penetrate the dense canopy. The raucous calls of hornbills challenge the melodic drone of cicadas. Though the forest is never silent or still, it brings a deep sense of calm.

Orangutan in Borneo, photo by R. Butler

I sit with my feet in the cool water, picking over my clothes in search of leaf leeches, who seek a feeding opportunity in every crease of material. As I remove these brightly hued creatures, I am content to watch a lone male orangutan silently make his way through the branches above the stream. The idyllic setting and the company of my red-bearded simian companion provide the perfect end to my half-day trek.

Eight weeks after leaving the tract of Malaysian rainforest that had filled me with happiness, I learned the forest was gone, logged for wood chips to supply a paper-pulp plant. This place of wonder and beauty was lost forever. The orangutan, the hornbills, the butterflies, and even the leeches would now have to make do in their dramatically changed environment.

Despite my few years in the forest, this was not the first time I had lost such a special place, nor would it be the last.

These personal losses have long troubled me, but the loss of that small section of forest in Borneo created the urgency to act upon a thought that had been nagging me. While environmental losses and degradation of the rainforests have yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of wildlands and the loss of their species are disheartening. I feel sorrow for those who have not yet had the privilege of experiencing the magnificence of these places, and I try to picture how—should biodiversity losses continue to mount—I will explain to my grandchildren why these places that I enjoyed in my youth no longer exist.

These experiences led me to embark on my web site project,, which has since grown to encompass subjects beyond
rainforest conservation. The lesson of Mongabay is that we may not have to accept this future. A lot can still be done. Using our intelligence and ingenuity, the human species can preserve biodiversity and unique places for future generations, without compromising the quality of life for present populations.

This Earth Day take a minute to picture a place where you have had a memorable experience and then try to imagine the regret you would have it if were gone.

This piece draws from the preface of A Place Out of Time

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