With 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s time for change

Let’s make the best of challenging times by making Vashon a more sustainable and resilient community.

  • Sunday, April 26, 2020 2:52pm
  • Opinion
Steve Bergman

Steve Bergman

Happy 50th Earth Day! (It’s next Wednesday, April 22.) The Earth is a most amazing planet with an astonishing history, wonderfully recorded in the rocks. Yet buried rocks contain energy-rich resources that, exploited by humans, have caused the climate crisis.

During the last half-century, our understanding of how the Earth works has been revolutionized by the development of the plate tectonic theory. Plate tectonics explains the formation of ocean basins, continents, mountain ranges, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the location of natural resources, as well as many other features.

One thing constant about the Earth’s processes is change. In light of human behavior of the last half-century, the appropriate time for humankind to follow suit and make a change in resource use is now. Here we focus on energy, realizing there are many other environmental issues deserving attention as well.

The energy associated with many of Earth’s processes is difficult to comprehend and can be hidden, although it has been apparent to those living in the Pacific Northwest. Since the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, the Juan de Fuca Plate has moved five to six feet closer to North America along Vashon’s closest plate boundary, the Cascadia subduction zone buried 30 miles beneath Vashon, mainly by gradually creeping along the megathrust fault. Occasionally, the plate boundary gets locked and snaps, causing earthquakes that quickly release stored strain energy. In 2001, all conscious residents of Vashon felt the ground shake during the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually event, and as much energy was released in 15 seconds as detonating 400,000 tons of dynamite. This event was located in the upper plate and small compared to the Cascadia magnitude 9 megathrust quake of January 1700 that released 1,000 times as much energy. Luckily, the last 12 of these megaquakes have occurred about every 642 years, so we must wait more than 300 years for the next one.

The Cascadia subduction zone also produces a volcanic arc with more than 20 active volcanoes. One of its most spectacular eruptions occurred in 1980 at Mount St. Helens, releasing as much energy as detonating 500 million tons of dynamite, or an average 10-day hurricane (or 2×1018 Joules Joules).

Of all of Earth’s processes, humankind has only figured out how to harness geothermal, water, and wind to generate a minor yet growing renewable fraction of our electricity needs. Geothermal energy has been sadly neglected yet has much potential, mainly due to the center of the Earth being white-hot, hotter than the surface of the sun at around 5,500 Kelvin.

In contrast to the above sources, the energy that humankind has figured out how best to harness results from light emitted by the sun. The bulk of this energy results from photosynthesis in biota that grew over the last hundreds of million years and occurs in buried rocks. In the last 50 years, humankind has consumed more than three times as much energy as that consumed in the 150 years prior to the first Earth Day from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). Using this energy has increased atmospheric CO2 from 325 to 415 ppm in the last 50 years, greatly contributing to the climate crisis, and creating a huge burden on future generations.

The time to transition away from fossil fuels to greener energy sources is long overdue. The generation of renewable electricity, from solar photovoltaics and other methods, now accounts for 2 to 3% of all global electricity consumption and is growing. It’s time to expand the use of renewable energy sources with lower carbon and environmental footprints than those of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are not the only problem needing attention — we need to correct all the negative impacts humankind has had on Earth’s ecosystems, including soil, air, oceans, aquifers, rivers, wetlands, grasslands, forests, and lifeforms. Humanity has altered more than 75% of the terrestrial surface, removing the diverse natural habitats needed for our survival. Humanity now moves more sediment and rocks than nature does!

We are, unfortunately, not able to celebrate Earth Day this year as we had hoped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has produced a steep change in life as we know it, yet has resulted in improved air quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, given us more time to interact with the environment, and has reduced seismic noise, making geophysicists happy. Unfortunately, these benefits may only be temporary and have come at great cost: tragic deaths, human distress, economic slowdown, and many municipalities curtailing recycling programs. Both the pandemic and climate crises threaten our health and security. Now is the time to change our relationship with the environment, and our current production and consumption habits, towards cleaner, greener, and more circular and sustainable economies, while keeping nature rich, diverse and flourishing.

Let’s make the best of these challenging times by making Vashon a more sustainable and resilient community, changing our behavior, and healing the Earth! The forthcoming Whole Vashon Catalog will provide a great resource with lots of ideas for healing the Earth. Will you join me in celebrating Earth Day every day?

Steve Bergman is a retired research geologist and resides in Ellisport.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@vashonbeachcomber.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.vashonbeachcomber.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Opinion

Stop ‘twindemic’ in its tracks with a flu shot

We are asking you: make that choice for your own safety and for your island community.

Help raise a barn so the Care Closet can spread out and grow

The Vashon Care Network’s funding program has been labeled the Barn Dance Initiative.

Amendments vital to police oversight of Sheriff’s office

We have a critical opportunity to improve police accountability on the ballot.

More than ever, school board needs to hold focused meetings

The Oct. 8 meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. It stretched to almost twice that long.

Cope with challenges in groups for parents and seniors

Social isolation helps us preserve our physical health but it is not so good for our mental health.

Walk to help end a different deadly virus

Vashon Rotary Club invites islanders to walk to end Polio on Friday, Oct. 23 and Saturday, Oct. 24.

Inoculate yourself against fake news

Look away from your screen, and get to your misinformation medicine cabinet.

This Has Been a Banner Year for Food Bank

Demand for the Vashon Food Bank’s grocery services has already seen an overall increase of about 20%.

The Moderate Majority

Will we ever get back to a calmer, mutually respectful world?

Listen to your conscience, and your neighbors, as you vote

Think of these words as your voter’s guide as you do your duty to help our country find a way forward

Zen and the Art of Well Maintenance

Here is what you should do to safeguard a residential well and the island’s collective water supply.

Think of Bees Before Using Harmful Chemicals

Some insect control products have been shown to be very harmful to bees.