It’s Earth Day, and It’s Time We Build the World We Want to See.
Earth Day is about looking forward and building a future that is good for people and the planet. That means supporting innovations that can fix climate change.
Ryan Duncombe, Beam Project
Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, a worldwide event supporting environmental protection. However, it is little known that Earth Day originally grew out of, and eventually replaced, Arbor Day, which was started in the 1870s by J. Sterling Morton in Nebraska. Arbor Day, a national tree-planting day, was his small way of slowing down the wave of deforestation that was sweeping across America, as the equivalent of 12 football fields of woodland were being consumed every minute. Of Arbor Day, Morton wrote:
“It is the only anniversary in which humanity looks futureward instead of pastward, in which there is a consensus of thought for those who are to come after us, instead of reflections concerning those who have gone before us.”
Today, Earth Day preserves this future-facing perspective and expands it, from solely forest conservation to all types of environmental preservation. However, while Morton’s words still ring true of Earth Day, they capture only part of the myriad feelings this day engenders in many. Because yes, it remains a day to reflect upon, celebrate, and protect the natural beauty that is thankfully still so abundant on our planet. But for many it has also become a day of fear and frustration, as we now mark half a century of Earth Days and the problems facing us, and the Earth, remain as daunting as ever.
Today, more than 70% of Americans say that climate change is “personally important” to them, and a majority of Americans say that climate change is already affecting their local community. A majority also say that protecting the environment should be a top priority for the President and Congress. So, this article assumes that you, the Reader, are one of those people — the majority — who know the fact of human-induced climate change. That’s why this article won’t argue for why the Earth and its resources need preservation, because you already believe they do. It will instead argue why you, as a normal individual, should act. And further, it will attempt to explain how you, as a normal individual, can act — without changing your normal life to any COVID-esque degree.
Earth Day and the Evolution of the Environmental Movement
Today’s Earth Day is a significant moment to reflect for many reasons. When the first Earth Day was organized in 1970, it was in the wake of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California — the largest spill in U.S. history at the time (it is now the third largest, after Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon). Ecologists had been writing about humanity’s ability to impact the environment for a century following Thoreau’s Walden, but national TV broadcasts of millions of gallons of oil spewing across the Santa Barbara coastline inspired a new level of intense, concentrated environmental activism. An estimated 20 million people — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — participated in demonstrations on that first Earth Day.
This spill, and the ensuing activism, was the most visible and most dramatic of several key events that inspired passage of sweeping, bipartisan environmental legislation of a kind that hasn’t been seen since. In fact, fallout from the spill also led to President Nixon founding the EPA later that same year. Unfortunately, as Naomi Klein has written so much about, it seems the only thing with a potential of overcoming today’s hyper-partisanship is a crisis; not a crisis of the near-future, like climate change, but a crisis of today. Even then, we’ve seen how the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t exactly leading to legislative cooperation.
Despite years of legislative gridlock, the five decades of massive and organized efforts resulting from Earth Day and the environmental movement have accomplished a great deal. Just here in the U.S., millions of acres of land have been converted to parklands for conservation, renewable energy has increased in presence, and, while there have been even worse oil spills than the fateful one in Santa Barbara (Deepwater Horizon spilled 70 times as much oil), regulatory efforts have significantly reduced pollution in American rivers, oceans, and air. However, in the fifty years since the movement started with a focus on anti-pollution efforts, the world has been made aware of an even greater threat: greenhouse gases, and in particular, atmospheric CO2. In 1989, Bill McKibben was among the first to write of the dangers of global warming for a public audience in his landmark article The End of Nature. There, he likened environmental insults like logging forests and oil spills to stabbing a man with toothpicks — they may annoy the Earth but they can’t truly harm it. Greenhouse gases, on the other hand, can choke it to death.
The Measure of Your Actions
The pressures people feel to “be green” have often defined our decisions and our actions as binary: green or not-green. This frequently leaves people feeling like they’re failing the environment every time they don’t make the “green” choice. But this dichotomy is dangerous, and in no way describes how the sum total of our actions holistically affect the environment. Rather than feeling guilty about every “non-green” choice we make, we should all strive to improve our actions in any meaningful way we can, while encouraging others to do the same. The scale of possible actions individuals can take varies dramatically in impact, from minimal to industry-changing, so it’s important to not agonize over light bulb usage when you could be driving less, or reducing meat consumption.
As much as that scale varies, though, there’s an important consideration to make: even if all Americans completely eliminated their carbon footprint, an impossible feat, it wouldn’t be enough to prevent catastrophic warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. All 330 million Americans have an average carbon footprint of 24 tons of CO2 per year. If that was entirely eliminated, it would result in a reduction of 7.9 Gigatons of CO2 — only half of where we need to be. Further complicating things, we know we have a time limit: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2018 that we have only 12 years (now 10, time is ticking fast) to make dramatic reductions to avoid 1.5oC and all that comes with it.
This means that we need something more than individual efforts alone. However, just because individual reductions in emissions can’t accomplish the goal unaided doesn’t mean that those efforts aren’t important. And furthermore, it’s important to take into account not just the carbon footprint of our actions, but the effect those actions have on others, as green actions beget more green actions. Studies have shown household solar panels increase the likelihood of neighbors adopting solar, and that people reduce electricity usage when shown how they compare with their neighbors. Other actions, like volunteering for a local environmental group, taking part in rallies, purchasing carbon credits, or donating to environmental groups may not show up in our own footprints, either, but can have an even greater impact in others’ footprints. Finally, and most importantly, individual actions are essential preconditions for collective action. The large-scale change that is truly needed will never come without many small-scale actions first.
And that collective action will eventually be necessary. As things currently stand, it’s impossible for the average American to live an environmentally neutral life, because our society provides us with few ways to be truly sustainable. Utilities are chosen for us, and most Americans have no access to renewable electricity or gas-free means of heating our homes. When grocery shopping, the ecological footprint of our foods can be impossible to determine, and almost nothing comes in biodegradable packaging. All of this means an American would have to have a tremendous amount of money and time to refashion their home and their life in a truly zero-carbon way. However, if cleaner energy sources were more widespread and affordable, people could have greater choice in their carbon footprint. Where policy is falling short, new tech represents an under-appreciated way, and a more direct one, in which individuals can make a difference.
A Moonshot for Climate Change
One thing people say will solve climate change is that, when the problem gets severe enough, humanity will innovate its way out like we’ve done with countless other problems. We’ll finally engineer cheap carbon sequestration technology and pull atmospheric CO2 down to 350 ppm, right in the nick of time. After all, technology has solved many of our problems before, why can’t it solve this one? However, this thought is really only used to rationalize people’s own inaction, and it’s naïve to an irresponsible degree. On the surface it claims trust in innovation, but in actuality it’s only a misguided cover-up for apathy and “non-green” guilt. It also misrepresents the current state of the climate crisis, as atmospheric CO2 is already 20% above the acceptable limit.
The other, larger issue with this scenario is that scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs have already been working on cleaner technologies for decades. But people can’t expect a single panacea, because climate change is an enormously complex problem and it will require many different solutions applied together. In that way, it shares a lot in common with cancer — which instead of one disease is really thousands, many of which require unique treatments. Similarly, “climate change” is the name for a single outcome created by millions of causes. The emissions we produce are spread across the entire global economy, hidden in different industries. And many of these emissions, like those resulting from agriculture, or manufacturing, won’t be reduced by currently available renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
However, there are countless start-ups engineering clean technologies right now that can dramatically reduce carbon emissions — in every sector. Many of them have proven their technology and are diligently working to scale up and deploy to the market. Unfortunately, the need to return atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm within 10 years means there simply isn’t time to let all these ideas push, sell, and struggle their way through the start-up process to determine which ones can make it.
The process needs to be accelerated. There isn’t time for a single, consolidated effort the way NASA used to get to the moon (coincidentally, the first moon landing also celebrated a 50th anniversary just last year). We don’t need a moonshot; we need hundreds of moonshots, perhaps thousands. To reduce total emissions will require reducing emissions from countless different sources, so each new clean technology developed represents one potential route to a carbon neutral future — one moonshot.
How We Help Startups, and Save Mother Earth
Like many others, and like Morton, we’re seeing a worrisome ailment sweep over our planet. Our response to climate change, and our own reckoning with the difficulty of making a difference as one person, was to build Beam Project, a non-profit that helps bring people together to turn the tide through clean technology. We think that everyone should be able to help build a future where we live in sustainable harmony with Mother Nature, and they should be able to do it by supporting the moonshots we need to take us there. Beam Project’s mission is to empower people like you (and like us) to help fund early-stage clean energy startups, giving them the best chance of meaningfully reducing global emissions. By giving crowdfunded grants to high-potential, early-stage startups, we hope to give each dollar donated an outsized impact in contributing to emissions reductions.
Take, for example, the flight industry. Flight is one of the most notable sources of carbon emissions, contributing over 800 million tons each year, and it often comprises the largest portion of any individual’s carbon footprint. But flying is also an essential aspect of today’s highly-connected world, and, as a whole, flight isn’t going anywhere (even during a pandemic). The way forward is to find lower-carbon methods of flight for the future. However, those low-carbon methods of flight are going to take time to develop and implement, so any low carbon planes of the future need to already be in development today.
That’s why we’ve chosen Ampaire, Inc., a California-based startup developing hybrid-electric aircraft, to be our first grant recipient. They’re working to retrofit existing planes of up to 19 passengers (so far) with hybrid-electric engines, dramatically reducing carbon emissions. This retrofit strategy greatly decreases cost and increases feasibility. Ampaire has already flown a prototype airplane, and they’re currently developing their 19-passenger model with support from NASA. All of these are reasons why we’re confident Ampaire can and will make a difference, and it’s why we’re aiming to give them our first grant by the end of this year.
While our mission starts with Ampaire, it doesn’t end with them. There are so many valuable and important startups out there, and with a little help, some of them can make a real difference in the fight for a carbon-neutral future. Many of these we’ve already written about, like the startups tackling emissions from agriculture, energy, transportation, and building materials.
Every dollar will help these startups — these moonshots — and the funding they receive will directly translate to innovation and a greater likelihood of their technology’s success. And a success for clean technology is a success for the Earth. So, this Earth Day, celebrate the planet and its natural beauty, but also consider how you can help preserve it for the future as J. Morton originally intended. Your actions — whether they be supporting environmental causes, reducing personal waste, or funding the future of tech — can help future generations enjoy Earth Days to come.
Want to help? Check out www.beamproject.co or leave us a message here!