EARTH DAYS: Time for an ecological century

Here’s an excerpt from the Earth Day piece by William McDonough and Wendy Schmidt in HuffingtonPost Green:

Earth Days: Time for an ecological century?

Since its debut 43 years ago, Earth Day has become the largest civic observance on the planet, celebrated by more than one billion people in 192 countries. Organized in 1970 to draw attention to environmental problems in the United States, it now expresses a global desire to not simply sustain existing patterns of development, but to live in societies that support a more just, more prosperous, and more ecologically healthy world.

As one billion people imagine a bright future for the planet, it is worth tracing the arc of history that has established equity, economy, and ecology as fundamental and interdependent elements of sustainable civilization. At a time of unprecedented decline in ecological health, their relationship has never been more important.

In the United States, history took a deep bow to equity in the 1700s, the century of the Enlightenment and natural rights. In a sustained argument for individual liberty and freedom from remote tyranny, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with a debt to the English Bill of Rights, established the first generation of civil liberties and human rights. They defined the individual’s right to life, liberty and property; protected citizens from the long reach of royalty; and provided a legal framework for free enterprise.

The U.S. Constitution recognized the rights of white, Protestant, male landowners. We have come a long way since then, as Emancipation, women’s suffrage, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Civil Rights Act and other declarations have allowed an ever-growing number of people to freely, safely and gainfully participate in the world.

The 1800s were the century of the market economy. Adam Smith’s revolutionary The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, rang the free market’s opening bell and for the next 200 years the world did not look back. Lit by tallow, wax, and whale oil, then coal oil, then carbon-based electricity, the capitalist market economy gained scale and power year-by-year, ending Western feudalism. Evolving concepts of property rights took on a social dimension, capitalists seeking self-inurement; communists seeking communal ownership. Industrialists and nation-states accrued capital and organized phenomenal forces of production.

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