Earth Blog #5: Earth Environmentalism: Synonym or Euphemism?

For me, the first week of fall semester 2021 culminated with a UConn Today feature article by Elaina Hancock titled: “Rx for Humanity: Whole Earth Environmentalism.” The article’s subtitle “Whole Earth Environmentalism is mine. It popped out accidentally when I was trying to describe what Earth System Science was to an outsider who wasn’t getting it. Since then, I’ve been wondering if I used my ad lib phrase as a synonym for what we do or as a euphemism for marketing what we do to outsiders. Perhaps it’s both.

We geoscientists know who we are and what we do. We are earth system scientists. We treat the Earth as a single coherent entity in order to learn how its human and non-human components work together. The ultimate goal is to apply that fundamental knowledge to help with “environmental” issues.

The article’s main title, “Rx for Humanity” was Elaina’s. Her inspiration was an analogy between (1) how knowledge of the whole human body (as a system of subsystems) helps us understand and be less anxious about medical problems and (2) how knowledge of planet Earth (as a system of subsystems) helps us understand and be less anxious about environmental problems like the climate crisis. The central issue is that our K-12 education is so poor in Earth Science that we’ve created a generation who are overly anxious about Earth’s future because they don’t know how the planet actually works. I suspect that most UConn students graduate without knowing that heat from radioactivity is essential for earthly life, that petroleum is no more and no less natural than water, and that climates come from underground.

Yes, the term “whole Earth environmentalism” is a euphemism for Earth System Science. Quite clearly, I’m taking ideas students care greatly about –the environment, holism– and attaching them to something they don’t know much about –the Earth. This provides an incentive to learn.

And yes, the term is also a synonym for Earth System Science because the environment and the system are now one in the same. The root word environs means that which surrounds us. Forty years ago when the environmental movement was taking shape, the word was used mainly locally. Today human impact has gone so global that the only thing surrounding the system is the “outer space” above the stratosphere. Whole Earth and whole environment are now one in the same.

Robert M. Thorson, September 3, 2021