Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day is celebrated on this date because the environmental movement really got started on April 22, 1970.

The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California … Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land … On April 22,1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies … Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”

Earth Day 1970 was such a big deal that it pushed President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency in December of that year. The EPA worked too, until it was gutted during the 1980s. Now the poor thing limps along, trying it’s best although understaffed and underfunded. However, when things do go catastrophically wrong – like the Flint water crisis (which was done to save money at the expense of human lives) – people want to know why the EPA wasn’t on top of it.

For Earth Day, lets look at some of the biggest accomplishments of the EPA and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.

The EPA has actually done a lot more than most people realize, including saving the bald eagle from extinction by:

banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.

The Clean Air Act has saved us $22 trillion in healthcare costs and given us air we can see through. Look at Boston and New York before the Clean Air Act rode to the rescue:

 Boston before and after Clean Air Act changes

New York before and after Clean Air Act

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, our rivers no longer burst into flame. Lake Eire, which was considered ‘dead’ in the 1960s thanks to pollution, now has fisheries again. Industries can’t just dump their waste into rivers and streams and lakes. Cities and farms cannot pump raw sewage into people’s drinking water anymore. Call me a tree-hugger, but I like my water without carcinogens and poo-free.

before and after clean water act

The Endangered Species Act has saved more than 100 species from extinction. The peregrine falcon, sea otter, humpback whale, and green sea turtle are all around because the ESA protected them. The ESA has saved the grizzly bear, the manatee, and the red-cockaded woodpecker.  The grey wolf was such a comeback success that it even made it off the ESA list. I’d say that even saving one animal would have made the ESA worth it, let alone saving dozens and dozens.

For Earth Day, please take a moment to consider how beneficial governmental programs like the EPA have been and to worry about the fact they are under attack in Congress. Do we really want to go back to rivers that catch fire and brown air?



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