Bill Nye: "The Responsibility to Save the Earth Lies With Every One of Us"

"It's a moral imperative, and it's also imperative for our survival."

July 17, 2017
bill nye
Mike Pont/Getty Images

Adapted from Bill Nye's new book, Everything All At Once

It may be hard to recall, but for a long time the idea that humans could change the entire planet seemed ludicrous. The prevailing attitude since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution was that Earth is so huge, and humans so puny, that the most we could do was local damage. That view started to change in earnest only in the 1960s, for several reasons. Astronomers began to compare the climates of other planets with the climate of Earth. When the first photo of Earth, looking delicate and alone outside the window of the Apollo 8 command module, was sent around the world late in December 1968, the impact was huge. Those first personal images of our planet from afar caused a dramatic change in perspective. 

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More from Bill Nye: "If the EPA Is Under Assault, We're All Under Assault"

And then there was that first Earth Day. It wasn't "Local Cleanup Day" or "National Environment Day." The rally was about getting us all to think of our planet as a single enormous ecosystem—the Earth, the global commons. There's an inherent morality in this everything-all-at-once attitude. We are all responsible for the global commons. We all have to look out for our neighbors, and now it's clear that those "neighbors" might be halfway around the planet. Whether you are a scientist or an artist, a very important leader or an ordinary citizen, you have an obligation to pitch in for the greater good. Soon that way of thinking seemed not just reasonable but also obvious... well, to most people. So yes, Earth Day was effective. It had and continues to have a considerable impact.

After its initial rousing success, Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 every year. I rode down to a few more of the events when I was in high school in the early 1970s. Like so many things in our society, Earth Day gatherings became more organized and more commercialized. From one perspective, it's easy to wonder what good my short bike rides to the gatherings really did. One could argue that my attendance at those rallies made no material difference to the politicians calling the shots in the Capitol Building and the White House. I'd dispute that view, though. I think the continued crowds, year after year, helped maintain support for the EPA and the many other, less visible state agencies that magnify its work.

 

"Support the causes you believe in. Show up at rallies. Find your community, or help create one if you can. Share support and inspiration for nerdy compassion and responsibility. Stand up and be counted as an active, rather than a passive, member of your democracy."

I can tell you for certain that Earth Day motivated me. I was convinced that we were headed for trouble as a species unless we could start using our brains more rationally, and it shaped how I approached my own environmental impact and goals for the future. Ever since that first event, I have done whatever I can to fight the good fight and to get you to fight alongside me. Support the causes you believe in. Show up at rallies. Find your community, or help create one if you can. Share support and inspiration for nerdy compassion and responsibility. Stand up and be counted as an active, rather than a passive, member of your democracy. And use your time at these gatherings to find out what courses of action you can take next that can continue to make a difference at the local level and beyond.

A lot of what I have done over the past 4 decades—including writing Everything All At Once—was inspired by the need to help people understand what it means to be a global species. We humans know we can change the world because we're doing it right now—but so far we're doing it mostly by accident. The challenge is taking responsibility for our actions, assuming deliberate control of the change. We're all in this together. There's nobody else who can pick up the external costs. Where, exactly, would you send the bill? I don't think any of us has that address—ha, ha, ha (?). 

 

More: 12 Earth Day Habits that Actually Matter

Nerds don't give up when there's a problem to be solved, and so I've kept working on my climate message, redoubling my efforts to try everything all at once. I describe climate change in my kids' books and made a point to do climate change demonstrations on the Bill Nye the Science Guy show. I've spoken at Earth Day events in Washington, DC, at the invitation of both Democratic and Republican presidents. I managed to host a special on the National Geographic Channel with Arnold Schwarzenegger about environmental destruction and global warming.

One thing led to another, and President Barack Obama had me as his guest at the 2015 Earth Day celebration. We went to Florida to call attention to environmental issues there and to celebrate a redesigned and rebuilt system of public works, bridges, weirs, and roads that together are helping manage a major redistribution of surface water in and around Everglades National Park. The Everglades has an exotic, delicate ecosystem full of species that are found nowhere else on Earth. If you want clean water in South Florida, you want that surface flow to be filtered by the complex chemistry of the living systems in North and Central Florida. All this is worth preserving, and the efforts currently underway are impressive. That is part of what President Obama wanted to discuss with me.

More: From Al Gore: How to Talk to Climate Change Deniers

The Everglades restoration is a metaphorical drop in the bucket, however. As global temperatures rise, sea level is rising, too. Ocean saltwater may soon inundate large parts of Florida, including the Everglades. Humankind, the United States especially, has done very little to address climate change. We need to press on and apply nerd thinking much more broadly. I try to do my part on the individual level. I recycle. I bike on local errands and to local business meetings. I drive an electric vehicle. I have solar panels on my house. I have a solar hot-water system. Most of the people I know take all kinds of personal actions to help out, too. But that's not enough. We need to put on our Big Data goggles and remember the power of applied science and engineering, especially when we harness it together.

I ask myself—and I hope you will ask yourself, too—what will turn the tide this time? What will motivate the United States and the rest of the world to settle in and get to work addressing the effects of our warming world? I am quite sure that it will take all of us working collectively toward a common cause. Crazy, large-scale idealism isn't crazy at all. It really can be put into practice. Air and water are much cleaner than they were in 1970 across most of the developed world. Rivers no longer catch fire in the United States. Washington, DC, is a much wealthier and fancier town than it was back then; the neighborhoods burned out during the riots are once again vibrant communities. But the kind of urgency that led to the rapid adoption of environmental regulations is lacking this time around. The crisis mentality of 1970 wasn't pleasant, but it got results.

"We have to address climate change every way we can, using the very best scientific methods... It's a moral imperative, and it's also imperative for our survival."

The responsibility lies with every one of us. Whether you frame the problem in terms of the tragedy of the commons or in terms of everything all at once, the message is the same. We have to address climate change every way we can, using the very best scientific methods. We have to reduce our waste and do much more with much less. We have to develop clean-energy technologies. We have to provide access to these emerging technologies to everyone we can. And we have to do it not just one by one, but also as a nation and as a planet. It's a moral imperative, and it's also imperative for our survival.