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 multiton 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 widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
In 1969 the Cuyahoga River fouled with decades worth of industrial waste, caught fire. This wasn’t the first or worst fire on the river. But it was a tough time in America, rife with social unrest and a growing awareness of the unintended consequences of 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 cheek as he witnessed the waste and destruction brought onto his beloved land: “People start pollution, people can stop it.”
The Decade of Environmental Awakening
The following decade was arguably one of the most productive for laying the groundwork of fundamental environmental policy. The 1970s ushered in the first Earth Day, with 20 million Americans nationwide 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 on 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 1970s waned, a lame-duck Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as Superfund. 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, to protect the environment. The work done in that decade would be a model for environmental regulation worldwide.
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 then, the scope and nature of “environmental protection” have changed. Economic output and pollution loads grew in tandem at the beginning of the Great Acceleration in the 1950s. Thanks mainly to the expansive environmental laws set in place the previous decade, by the 1980s, the lockstep rise of economic growth and pollution began to split. GDP grew while absolute pollution levels decreased, 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.
Cleaning up our local mess is critical, but our overarching challenge is learning to 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.
The Paralyzing Partisan Divide
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 vast and well-financed PR machine modeled on Big Tobacco’s tactics confuses the public and vilifies science, often without even a rudimentary understanding or authentic curiosity about the issue. Meanwhile, the clock ticks ever forward, and the signs of an increasingly distressed planet mount.
Yet there is another frame for Earth Day: hope, personal reconnection with the world around us, and changing the narrative for a new century. On many fronts, see a glimpse of how to meet these challenges; how we live in cities, produce our energy, grow our food, and manage our farms. It is a halting start, to be sure, but progress nonetheless. Many brilliant, talented, and visionary people are working to change and 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 insurmountable, the opposition to change immovable, and 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 today’s opportunities and challenges.
Main image credit: Ad Council