Earth Day is not a day to celebrate the wonder of this unique planet.
It's an opportunity to recognize what needs to change to secure a better future.
Modern environmentalism is in need of a major overhaul. Despite some progress over the past generation, the majority of today's environmental groups have been using the same set of tactics that have been used since the movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s. As result, environmentalists are obtaining an even smaller return on their investment.
Today, there are more than 15,000 environment and animal public charities in the United States, compared with just a few hundred in 1970. Membership in these organizations has more than tripled, from 5 million in 1981 to 16 million. Revenues have climbed to nearly $15 billion, and Earth Day has grown from 20 million participants at its launch in 1970 to a worldwide movement that attracts more than 1 billion people each year.
Yet despite all advocacy, legal victories, and public and private funding that have been funneled into environmental efforts, there's an overwhelming amount of evidence that we're not getting the type of return on investment that will secure a cleaner, greener future for decades to come. More than half our country's waterways are considered impaired under the Clean Water Act. Last year was the hottest on record, and our climate is at a critical tipping point. The list of facts like these that indicate the dire state of our planet is long.
In the same way that many of us take a step back to evaluate whether we're accomplishing our personal goals, it's time for the environmental movement to assess its effectiveness. What results have we been getting? Where have we been successful, and in what areas can we improve? Smart businesses remake themselves all the time--and for modern environmentalism, such an assessment is long overdue.
Right now, the environmental world is about stopping more bad things from happening - holding the line - instead of setting goals and tracking progress toward them. Imagine the $15 billion in annual U.S. environmental nonprofit revenue were spent on programs that were linked with real differences you could quantify.
Thanks to the 21st century, this isn't even that daunting. In the same way information helps a business decide where to focus its sales efforts, imagery, data and analytics can and should be used to guarantee that we're realizing true environmental gain.
Just last week, NASA began offering public access to more than 3 million images of the Earth's surface: wetlands, coral reefs, volcanoes, wildfires, urban spaces and more. For the first time in history, we can see the problems of our planet in crystal clear, real-time view.
There are now tools that can prioritize restoration sites and models and technologies that allow organizations to ensure the actions they're taking equal a clear benefit for our planet.
Today, more than 73 percent of companies use data to increase revenue. Some 84 percent of executives use data to help them make better decisions. In the same way information and technology helps a business decide where to focus its sales efforts, it's time the conservation world got up to speed.
In some circles, this is already happening.
Take for instance when the Sonoma County Water Agency teamed up with IBM to develop a water management system based on real-time information. The agency now receives information on water usage and quality, weather and climate, so that it can allocate water more effectively. And not surprisingly, the county has reduced its water resources at a time when California needs every drop.
Every movement has flashpoints. Moments that spark change. Women voting. Civil Rights. Movements begin when someone raises a hand and says something needs to be done. I think we can all agree that when it comes to this country's natural resources: There's a whole lot to be done.
The only real way that movements gain momentum when actual outcomes are achieved. It's time to acknowledge this hard and fast fact: The words put down in law and dollars spent on the environment mean nothing if we don't know where we are going or how fast we'll be able to get there.
So is Earth Day a time to pat ourselves on the back and acknowledge how far we've come? No.
Earth Day is a day for recognizing that we do not need 10% improvements for the environment--we need 1,000% improvements. It's about getting the environmental world up to speed and bringing conservation into the 21st century.