By: Weston Dripps
Executive Director at Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities
and Furman University Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences
What started in 1970 as a grass roots teach-in in the United States has become a massive global movement today. The overwhelming outpouring and success of that first Earth Day celebration that had an estimated 20 million Americans participating really sparked the modern environmental movement. The 1970s saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as numerous landmark environmental laws and regulations including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act among many others. We saw a fundamental shift in how industries disposed of their waste that resulted in significant improvements in air and water quality across the country. Although we have made good progress around a lot of point sources of pollution, today’s environmental problems are much more complex, diffuse, and global in nature. Climate change looms large and requires a much more comprehensive and coordinated global effort, which makes it that much more challenging to tackle.
The COVID crisis has provided us with a sudden and unexpected experiment around the
impact that humans have on our environment. We have seen noticeable improvements in air and water quality in some cities with the sudden absence of our fossil fuel-based transportation and industrial systems. The earth has shown itself to be particularly resilient in many ways. Is this pause just a pause? The future remains uncertain, however the long standing upward trend of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of many, many years of emissions, and this COVID induced decrease in emissions won’t likely make a huge difference with regards to climate change unless this crisis causes a fundamental shift and behavior change that allows us to sustain these declines. We will see.
The COVID crisis has shown us that we as humans can mobilize very quickly to respond to a global crisis. It would be wonderful if we could show that same sense of mobilization and urgency when it comes to tackling some of our grand sustainability challenges like climate change or food security.
So, what does our future hold? Recent decades have seen the emergence of sustainability as a concept central to the development and future of humankind. Sustainability problems are inherently complex, requiring a systems approach which includes both a better understanding of the complex interplay between humans and the environment and the development of feasible sustainability solutions. Industries, governments, academics, and communities are recognizing the significance of addressing complex social, environmental, and economic problems in an integrated and holistic fashion. Furman will be officially launching a new institute this fall – The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities aimed to promote sustainable communities that are fair and equitable, resilient, environmentally sound, and economically viable across the Southeast through cultivating and connecting sustainability leaders, conducting and applying breakthrough sustainability systems research, and designing innovative ways to teach and learn about sustainability. We are excited to work across our region to help develop the path for the next 50 years and hope that in 2070 we will be celebrating our collective success as a more sustainable Upstate. We all aspire for a more sustainable future. I hope you celebrated Earth Day 2020 and are ready to join us on developing a sustainable pathway for the next 50 years.