It’s good for us to look back and remember what’s gone right in our country. Earth Day, celebrated each April 22 since 1970, is an excellent moment to do just that.
The first Earth Day ignited a series of actions that not only improved the air, land, water and species upon which we depend, but also proved that American democracy is capable of great accomplishment.
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions,” President Richard Nixon, a Republican, declared during his 1970 State of the Union speech.
“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard,” said the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day.
The environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s was bipartisan and organic. A groundswell of demand rose up from the people and flooded the halls of power – peacefully. Earth Day was a public outcry for our land, air, water and wildlife to be protected through federal legislation. Some 20 million Americans of all stripes filled public spaces coast to coast on April 22, 1970 to demand a cleaner future. And they got it.
Political leaders of both parties listened and responded, quickly, despite opposition from big polluters who threatened to pull campaign donations. The needs of the many outweighed the greed of a few.
By July 1970, Nixon signed into law a bill establishing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A nearly unified Congress enacted the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973) and Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). For the first time, the nation had laws governing environmental standards and a science-driven agency to enforce them.
Thanks to those laws, we live in a nation that’s exponentially healthier than it was in the 20th century. Species exist that were on their way to extinction. Environmental-related cancer and pulmonary disease rates declined. Waterways are again playgrounds, not dump sites for industrial waste. Clean drinking water for all is an American ideal, if not fully reached.
“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures,” said Sen. Nelson.
While that vision is far from realized, countless success stories have unfolded because of these laws.
Perhaps the greatest comeback story in our region belongs to the bald eagle. By 1970, it was rare to spot an eagle flying our skies or fishing our Rock River because widespread use of DDT pesticide had contaminated fish ingested by eagles, making the raptors’ eggshells too thin to sustain eaglets. Peregrine falcons, brown pelicans and other species were suffering the same malady.
After the EPA banned DDT pesticide, the eagle population steadily recovered. Today, children take for granted eagle sightings – not knowing they were nearly denied this thrill.
The U.S. can boast a 99 percent success rate for preventing extinction of species on the endangered list, even while some 4,300 species worldwide have declined sharply since 1970.
In the 1960s, dense smog choked Los Angeles residents more than 200 days per year. Today, L.A. suffers only a handful of annual poor air quality days and residents can actually see the mountains on their horizon.
Likewise, the Clean Water Act has resulted in hundreds of U.S. communities enjoying waterways clean enough to fish, swim and paddle. Riverbank paths and parks are focal points of urban renewal (and tourism dollars) across the USA.
The “poster child” for this transformation is Cleveland, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which once bubbled with a brew of industrial waste so toxic that it burst into flames more than a dozen times between 1868 and 1969. It took decades for the river to recover under EPA supervision, but its fish finally were deemed safe to eat three years ago. Today Cleveland holds festivals along the riverbank all summer long – something few residents would have imagined 50 years ago.
Earth Day is still considered the largest civic event in mankind’s history. Today, more than 1 billion people in 192 countries recognize Earth Day and work together on environmental issues.
Our health and quality of life is immeasurably better than it could have been because something went right in American democracy 51 years ago. But leaders of that bipartisan movement are mostly gone from the earth. And bipartisanship is mostly gone from U.S. democracy.
It’s up to us to pay it forward.As Sen. Nelson put it, “to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” ❚