For most chroniclers of recent history, April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It was a different time in so many ways. Instead of SUVs and hybrids, muscle cars and big sedans dominated the roads, guzzling leaded gas at an average cost of 35 cents per gallon. The exhaust spewed out their tailpipes mixed with industrial emissions that buried many American cities under a blanket of smog.
The bipartisan birth of environmentalism
The first hints of a grassroots environmental consciousness arguably began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, warning of the dangers of the dangers of widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
In 1969 the Cuyahoga River, fouled with decades worth of industrial waste, caught fire. In reality, this wasn’t the first, or even worst, fire on the river. But it was a tough time in America, rife social unrest and a growing awareness of the unintended consequences in the Grand March of industrialization and consumerism. When the surface of Cuyahoga River once again erupted in flames yet again, it sparked a nerve perhaps best exemplified at the time by the television ad with Iron Eyes Cody, a tear running down his check as he witnessed the waste and destruction brought onto his beloved land: “People start pollution, people can stop it.”
The following decade was arguably one of the most productive for laying the groundwork of fundamental environmental policy. The 1970’s ushered in the first Earth Day, with 20 million Americans across the country voicing their alarm over contaminated air and water. It was a protest supported by the full spectrum of the country; Republicans and Democrats, wealthy and poor, urban and rural.
The Air Pollution Control Act, passed in 1955, was the first federal legislation pertaining to air pollution and the precursor to the Clean Air Act of 1963. But it wasn’t until 1970, under the Nixon administration, that sweeping amendments to the law required comprehensive regulation of both stationary and mobile sources of air pollution. These regulations were now vigorously enforced by the newly established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
As with air pollution, the nascent beginnings of controlling water pollution began with the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. But as we know, it didn’t stop polluted rivers from burning, fish from dying and poisoned water from threatening human health. In 1972, broad amendments to the law became what is now known as the Clean Water Act.
The following year, 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ESA was designed to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.
As the 1970’s waned, a lame duck Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as Superfund. On the day before he left office, president Jimmy Carter signed an executive order authorizing the EPA to implement the program.
Never before or since had so many comprehensive laws been enacted, primarily under a Republican administration, aimed at protecting the environment. The work done in that decade would be a model for environmental regulation the world over.
Forty years on, living within planetary boundaries
The political winds shifted in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, who, as Steven Cohen writes, appointed an “anti-environmental administrator of EPA, Anne Gorsuch-Burford, and an even more reactionary Secretary of the Interior, James Watt.” Even then bipartisan support for environmental protection was so strong that Reagan was forced to tap EPA’s first administrator William (“Mr. Clean”) Ruckelshaus to clean up the mess left by Gorsuch-Burford.
Since that time the scope and nature of “environmental protection” has changed. At the beginning of the Great Acceleration in the 1950’s, economic output and pollution loads grew in tandem. Thanks in large part to the expansive environmental laws set in place the previous decade, by the 1980s the lockstep rise of economic growth and pollutions began to split. GDP grew while absolute levels of pollution began to decrease, showing there needn’t be a trade-off between economic and environmental concerns.
The legacy of the first Earth Day and the subsequent environmental regulation enacted four decades ago remain with us to this day, to the benefit of all life on earth. But the challenges we face today we had only begun to imagine back then, barely given a public forum, if discussed at all.
Our overarching challenge now is not centered on cleaning up the “local” mess of air and water pollution and toxic waste, as important is it still is, but realizing we must live within planetary limits. Limits that our numbers and affluence inexorably push against. Climate change, depleting resources and sustainable global development in a world racing toward 9 billion people are the issues of Earth Day 2015.
Whatever common political ground that existed on Earth Day 45 years ago has vanished, at least in the American Congress and many statehouses across the U.S., where the mere mention of climate change is, at the very least, frowned upon. A great and well-financed PR machine modeled on the tactics of Big Tobacco confuse the public and vilify science, often without even a rudimentary understanding of it. Meanwhile, the clock ticks ever forward and the signs of an increasingly distressed planet mount.
Yet there is another frame for Earth Day, one of hope, one of personal reconnection with the world around us, and of changing the narrative for a new century. On many fronts, the challenges of today are being met; how we live in cities, produce our energy, grow our food, manage our farms. It is a halting start, to be sure, but progress just the same. Many brilliant, talented and visionary people are working to change the world, to heal the world, as if their life depended on it.
Because it does.
Let that be the message of Earth Day. The challenges may seem at times insurmountable, the opposition to change immovable, the path forward impregnable, but we must balance the despair with hope, strength and vision. And above all action.
The world will look very different in another 45 years. It will surely reflect what we make of the opportunities and challenges we confront today.
Main image credit: Ad Council