Earth Day Reflections

Earth Day erupted on the American scene on April 22, 1970.  Channeling some of the energy of the 1960’s protests, Earth Day was the first public outpouring of sentiment and action, and recognition of the need for protecting our environment.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, with bipartisan support, is credited with being the initiator of the Earth Day movement.  He subsequently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for his efforts.
The stage for Earth Day was set in part by the watershed publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962.  This raised environmental awareness to a level not seen before.  In 1969 we also witnessed our first massive oil spill in the coastal waters near Santa Barbara in Southern California.  This spill still ranks third in magnitude behind only the Deepwater Horizon event in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

On that spring day in 1970, some 20 million Americans filled parks, streets and auditoriums to express concerns and appeal for action.  The environmental movement was awakening.   The momentum of the day carried over into a number of significant actions.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created before the end of the year.  Over the next several years, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act were all established as laws of the land. 

In the nearly half-century since 1970, Earth Day has been observed in various forms each year.  It is estimated that one billion people around the world will recognize the event this year.

It seems that this much attention to the environment over this period of time should have resulted in solving the majority of our problems by now.  Sadly, this is not the case.  We have undoubtedly achieved many positive results because of the efforts inspired by Earth Day.  However there are even more locations where pressures of people, industrialization and apathy have moved us in the other direction. 

There were 3.7 billion people on the planet in 1970 and there was concern that we would not be able to adequately feed everyone.   Today there are 7.4 billion people.  We have done a remarkable job of expanding food supplies but at a significant cost to our environmental resources.  Population continues to expand today.

Water quality was a major concern in 1970.  Since then we have made a great deal of progress in reducing the amount of sewage that flows into our rivers and lakes.  However the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by excess nutrient runoff, was only beginning to form in1970 and did not occur every year.  It now covers five to eight thousand square miles (about the size of ten Iowa counties) each year.

We drove a lot of big heavy cars with powerful engines in 1970.  The average mileage for all vehicles was below twelve miles per gallon, about half what Henry Ford provided with his Model T in 1913.  With continual pressure from the federal government, mileage for the national vehicle fleet has steadily improved.  However, while we now get more miles for every gallon of gas, there are over 250 million vehicles on the road in this country.  In 1970, the number was closer to 120 million.  On a global basis the ratio is much worse, there are now about seven times the number of vehicles there were in 1970.

Climate change was barely in our vocabulary in 1970.  Today it is seen by many as the greatest threat facing mankind.  On Earth Day April 22, 2016, at the United nations in New York, 195 nations will sign an agreement pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is the most significant effort to control environmental degradation that has ever been undertaken in the history of the world.

Earth Day is a time to reflect on our ability to continue to live on this planet.  Good things are happening but we continue to slip backwards.  2016 is the time for renewal of the 1970 energy, and new awakening of environment activism and action.

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