This April 22nd will be the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Better World Club was scheduled to be at EarthX, where BWC President Mitch Rofsky was asked to speak, as he attended the first “Earth Week” in Philadelphia in 1970.
Mitch would have acknowledged that Baby Boomers often get quite a bit of criticism for its failure to cure climate change. Some of that criticism is deserved.
But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that quite a bit has been accomplished environmentally over the past 50 years (just ask anyone breathed the air in Los Angeles in the 1950s). It is critical that we recognize—and build upon—the progress of the past. When we don’t recognize progress, we might give up the strategies/tactics that have been successful. And who knows how many would become too cynical to participate in the political process meaningfully.
So, here’s a list of some of the environmental achievements that first –and following--Earth Days helped spur:
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got its start on December 2nd, 1970. Just before it was established, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio became so polluted that it caught fire – calling attention to the many environmental problems throughout America that needed to be addressed.
To protect children from developmental challenges, Congress restricts use of lead-based paint in homes and on cribs and toys in the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act.
Between 1920 and 1970, use of passenger rail dropped dramatically in favor of personal vehicles. Just when it seemed that the end of passenger rail in the United States was near, the government passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to ensure that railroads would continue to receive funds. Amtrak revived train travel, which is a low-impact form of transportation, though it was never able to regain its 19th century popularity.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which called attention to the devastating environmental effects of DDT insecticide, is often credited as the genesis of the modern American environmental movement. The book, published in 1962, also spurred the eventual banning of this chemical by the EPA ten years later. DDT spreads rapidly through the food chain to affect entire ecosystems and was blamed for the near-extinction of the bald eagle.
Congress enacts the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, or Ocean Dumping Act, to reduce ocean water pollution. Within three years, EPA had denied 70 contracts, many of them for chemical dumping.
On November 28, 1973 EPA released a study confirming that lead from automobile exhaust posed a direct threat to public health. On December 8 of that same year EPA issues regulations gradually reducing lead in gasoline.
One might have thought it was safe to drink the water before Earth Day. Drinking water didn’t become legally required to be safe throughout the United States until 1974, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. The act established national standards for acceptable levels of pollutants in water. In the 1980s, it was amended to require lead-free plumbing, new forms of monitoring, disinfection for groundwater systems and more enforcement powers for the EPA.
California was ahead of the curve – setting its own emissions requirements in 1966. The federal government followed suit in 1974. 1970’s Clean Air Act required a 90 percent reduction in emissions from new automobiles by 1975; that year saw the first generation of catalytic converters, which dramatically reduced lead levels in the air.
The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards are U.S. regulations to improve the average fuel economy of cars, vans, and sports utility vehicles. They are set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Secretary of Transportation.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act gives EPA authority to control hazardous waste from the 'cradle-to-grave,' including the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of harmful materials.
President Gerald Ford signed the Toxic Substances Control Act to curtail environmental and health risks posed by the growing number of synthetic and organic chemicals in consumer products and the environment.
Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), pollutants that were once widely used in transformers and electric motors, have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. In 1968, 400,000 birds died in Japan after eating poultry feed that was contaminated with PCBs. The chemicals were often dumped in areas where they could contaminate waterways. The EPA began phasing out their use in the mid-1970s and took over control of their disposal in 1978.
Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was an expansion of the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act, designed to protect species as well as “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” While the list was initially made up only of threatened animals, plants were eventually added, starting in 1977.
Used as propellants in aerosol cans for decades, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were found to be contributing to depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. In 1978, Congress banned the use of CFCs in aerosol cans, the first in a string of actions that would lead to a phase-out of CFCs that is still in process today. In 2007, about 200 nations agreed to speed up the elimination of CFCs entirely by 2020. CFCs are best known for their commercial name, Freon, and are still in use as refrigerants.
For decades, industries like chemical and plastic manufacturers buried, leaked or otherwise contaminated millions of acres of land with pollutants – land that is located adjacent to schools, neighborhoods and sources of food and water. The Love Canal disaster of the 1970s, in which hundreds of families were sickened by chemical waste, was a catalyst that helped spur the creation of the federal Superfund program. This program provides federal authority and funds to clean up contaminated sites all over the United States. It was an important step, but unfortunately, it is currently underfunded, and many sites still sit in limbo for decades before they’re remediated.
Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, millions of acres have been officially designated as protected areas in a bid to preserve America’s natural beauty and protect wildlife. 1984 saw one of the biggest gains in these lands, with a total of 8.6 million acres established in 21 states including Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 made it illegal to dump municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste in the ocean. It seems unbelievable now that just decades ago, the government had no control over ships intentionally dumping medical waste, garbage, chemicals, radioactive agents and other harmful substances into the ocean.
After Congress finally decided that the public has a right to know when toxic chemicals are released into the air, land or water in 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency began work on the Toxic Release Inventory. Debuted in 1990, the inventory gave the public access to information about toxic spills and releases in their own communities.
Minimum efficiency standards for electronics were first introduced in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, but the EPA took it a step further in 1992 with the Energy Star Program. The voluntary program, which labels energy-efficient products including appliances, encourages manufacturers to produce goods that are better for the environment and helps consumers make green choices.
The production of CFCs ended in 1996, and the production of all ozone depleters will end by 2030.
EPA completes a 25-year mission to completely remove lead from gasoline. Administrator Browner called it one of the great environmental achievements of all time.
EPA signs its first blanket green power contract, investing in wind energy to offset 100% of its electricity use. EPA was the first federal agency to do so.
The program is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 250 million metric tons and save 500 million barrels of oil over the lives of the vehicles produced within the program's first five years.