This year I will be another year older. It happens to every one of us every year but as the numbers pile up, they seem to churn by with an accelerated frequency. As is usually the case, added years present both advantages and disadvantages.
A major advantage of having more time to look back is that it offers perspective and an opportunity to reflect on changes that have occurred, not in the abstract, but in real time.
Fifty years is a nice round reference point. While I have been around well north of 50 years, that is still within my working career. During this span I have been involved with numerous environmental and conservation projects, observed both natural and political systems, and spent a good deal of time sorting out the important from the trivial.
Looking back 50 years provides a springboard for looking ahead another 50 to envelop a full century. The last 50 years have seen amazing changes in technology and the environment. Computers, the internet, travel around the globe, travel to the moon, and major innovations in renewable energy sources to name a few.
The rate of change over the next fifty years will be even more astonishing in ways that we cannot even imagine. Artificial intelligence, space exploration, global resource shortages and climate change will be a few of the major impacts on our lives.
In 1966, climate change was not a familiar term and not on anyone's worry list. The first "Earth Day" was in 1970. Today, most people are aware of the concept of climate change although concern about it varies widely depending on such things as age, location, and political persuasion. Over the next 50 years, climate change may well become the defining topic of our existence.
Fifty years ago, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level, measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was 322 parts per million (ppm). This was determined to be above the maximum level that had been experienced over the prior 800,000 years. People were just beginning to recognize that unrestrained burning of fossil fuels was impacting air conditions everywhere.
Today the carbon dioxide level is 407 ppm. We are burning fossil fuels at a much greater rate than fifty years ago. The level is on track to be near 520 ppm in 50 years. Knowledgeable climate scientists believe 350 to 400 ppm is the maximum that can be tolerated long term. Consumption of coal, oil and natural gas must be reduced.
Another observable metric of change, the population of the world has more than doubled in the last fifty years, from 3.4 billion to 7.4 billion. We are expecting to see 50 percent more people in the next fifty years. The strains on our transportation,housing, food, and social systems will present conflicts well beyond anything we have seen to date.
Many other factors can be similarly examined over the past and future 50-year intervals. The history and outlook of each tell a similar story. The arctic ice sheets are declining rapidly and will disappear completely in future summers. Ocean levels are rising and will continue to do so at an accelerating rate. Extreme weather events including heat waves, unprecedented rainfall, droughts and major storms are becoming commonplace.
Fifty years back, 50 years in the future, a century out of the 4 1/2 billion year life of the planet. The time span is an insignificant blip but the environmental changes are among the most consequential ever experienced.
Another year older. It can be exciting to experience change, especially if it is making life better, as it often does in the short term. Unfortunately we often overlook the cumulative impact of subtle and less desirable every day occurrences.
We should all appreciate gaining another year of experience and maturity. There is much to be learned from recent history and there is an overwhelming abundance of opportunities to use knowledge and wisdom gained to chart a better course forward.