Merry Christmas, happy holidays, deck the halls, peace on earth, good will toward people, pandas, and puffins, and… so on. I would really love to linger here, because I am a sentimentalist, a traditionalist, a humanist. I love the holiday rituals, and especially gathering with my family. I love pretending for a moment we mean the things we say and sing about peace and love and solidarity, and one great human family of common cause.
But this year, I have found the contrast between platitude and practice more jarring than ever. I receive news alerts nearly every day, as I’m sure do you, about the devastation we are perpetrating on the planet, our shared home.
Yellowstone is changing irrevocably, and fast; so, too, the Galapagos. The Arctic is melting faster than most models predicted (yes, the models of climate change are imperfect, but that means they can be wrong in either direction). There are ever more refugees from ever more places parched and starved, burned and flooded, hitting “the wall” of xenophobia and nationalistic hostilities wherever they go. Massive loss of biodiversity is threatened, and so, too, our own extinction. We are so far into the depletion of pollinators it is known simply as “the insect apocalypse.”
I get these alerts, as do you, and am then virtually slammed into a cultural onslaught of indifference, denial, and myopic profiteering. We see all the same goads for all the same excesses of consumption this year as every year prior. At what point does our culture behave in accord with the crisis? To make it vivid and visceral and blunt: at one point, do you think, did they close the concession stand on the Titanic?
I have long been outraged that in a world of epidemic obesity and diabetes, America proudly runs on Dunkin; that sugar-sweetened-beverages are the national approach to hydration; and that multi-colored marshmallows are glibly marketed as part of a child’s complete breakfastwith apparent impunity. I have long been outraged that our food supply is willfully engineered to subordinate public health to corporate profit; and even more outraged that everyone seems to be OK with all of this. I am outraged, in other words, that I am apparently alone in my outrage.
I have long been outraged that while knowing the merits of the Mediterranean diet and the blessings of the Blue Zones, we are committed to replacing both with the blight of American Frankenfoods, and the burdens of our epidemiology: diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia.
But I find my outrage of late reaching unprecedented levels as our exploitation not just of one another, but the planet as a whole, is practiced with stupefying audacity in the full light of day. In a world increasingly prone to thirst, we know that literally hundreds of liters of water are consumed to manufacture one liter of sugary (or alternatively sweetened) soda in its plastic bottle. We know as well that such beverages contribute singularly to the pandemics of obesity and chronic disease. And we know that puffins and polar bears face extinction in our lifetimes, the latter as the Arctic ice on which they rely to make a living melts out from under them.
So the only question about TV commercials featuring soda-drinking cartoon polar bears in an Arctic fantasy-land left to pose is: which element in this display of callous, pecuniary disregard is most apt to induce projectile vomiting?
While cola-drinking polar bears win my prize for most reality-obtuse ad campaign of the season, I’ve got serious issues with an apparent pitch to millennials from the same industry predicated on: “because I can.”
Well, sure, there are many things we “can” do. We can light forest fires during a terrible drought; eat the food and consume the water our children will need one day; wear coats made from the fur of endangered species; and piss in the family soup while no one is looking. We “can”- but should we? Would a decent person?
So, calling all millennials buying into the “I can, so it’s fine” nonsense: try “because I’m a decent human being” on for size, and see where it takes you. No one is an island, and in a world where what we do affects others- of our own species, and all the rest- “can” is a flawed and feeble test of sound and decent choices.
Reflecting, and gagging, on all of this- I’ve decided to come out of the closet.
We all know what that means. It means to reveal a veiled but fundamental truth, at the risk of derision, humiliation, and alienation. To honor the holiday season this year, and our collective hopes for peace and good will, I propose we come out of the closet together. I will start: I am #EarthAlert. I intend to fly that flag everywhere I go.
You are #EarthAlert, too, if you are awake, aware, alert to what’s happening here, in our home, the only one we will ever know.
Climate change is advanced, costly in every measure, and destined to be calamitous without strenuous corrective action. Humans are responsible for it- and these are established facts.
Crucial planetary resources, such as fresh, drinkable water, are being consumed far faster than they can be replenished; the Earth will run out, and the current diversity of life on this planet will suffer and be diminished- perhaps even mostly annihilated- as a result of such resource depletion.
Current trends in resource depletion and climate change threaten mass extinction, with Homo sapiens on the list of endangered species, and only humans have the capacity to address, control, and potentially reverse these trends.
Climate change, environmental degradation, and resource depletion are largely due to ever more demands for ever more goods and services by an ever larger global population of human beings; thus, lesser demands, better methods, and stabilization of the human population size are all essential goals of sustainable, healthful living. We can slow down the aggregation of harm by doing less, but to fix what we’ve done, we will almost certainly need to do entirely new things, taking a page from The Martian playbook.
If these established truths are self-evident to you; if you are committed to doing all you can to raise awareness among others, and align our actions- both individual, and collective- with the acute demands of this crisis; if you recognize that there are no healthy people on an uninhabitable planet- then you are #EarthAlert too. Please declare it. Add #EarthAlert to all of your social media profiles, and link back to this page. Hoist the banner, fly the flag, tell the world.
There are no healthy people on an uninhabitable planet, and healthy people are my business. My business is imperiled. We are running out of time to protect the Earth from the predations of short-sighted humanity, so that humanity does not face the privation of cosmic homelessness.
In this season we would all just like to consign to celebration, revelry, and solace, I can’t help but wonder how people behave on the eve of the many dystopias our culture considers entertainment, from Interstellar to Hunger Games, Maze Runner to the Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World to Planet of The Apes. Do they see what’s coming and adjust incrementally, or is it business as usual one minute, zombie apocalypse the next? As puffins pass the cola to polar bears, I can’t help but think about frogs in hot water.
I’ve had enough. I am #EarthAlert, and want that declaration with me everywhere I go, because it is time to choose a side: with the planet, or against it; with our children and grandchildren, or against them; with the future of humanity and the beautiful biodiversity of this world, or against.
I feel hope in the declaration, recalling the famous words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
For our children and grandchildren- for whales and sea otters, cheetahs and polar bears- and for reasons of selfish self-preservation, I pledge my allegiance to this planet. It is after all the only home I know.
And there’s no place like home for the holidays. #EarthAlert
Please add #EarthAlert to your social media profiles, and ask others to do the same. The True Health Initiative will monitor the uptake, and if there is a meaningful response, will work with other organizations around the world to parlay this pledge into a campaign of meaningful action. Thank you!
Author, The Truth about Food. All book proceeds go to support the True Health Initiative, a federally authorized 501c3 non-profit.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.