State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Earth Day’s Importance and Evolution Since 1970

This Wednesday is Earth Day, an event that began in 1970 with the goals of educating the public about environmental pollution and generating political support for environmental protection. The U.S. EPA was established that same year. Five years later, I enrolled in my first class in environmental politics and by 1977 I was working in EPA’s water program. In those days, the environment was a minor and relatively uncontroversial policy issue in the United States. The connection between environmental quality and public health was not yet clear, and the relationship of environmental quality to economic growth was not often discussed. More contentious issues at the time included the war in Vietnam, civil rights, the flight from cities to suburbs, and in 1973, the Arab oil embargo and subsequent “energy crisis.”

Republicans and Democrats worked together on all of the environmental policies formulated during EPA’s first decade. Policies to regulate water, air, toxics, solid waste, and hazardous waste were all enacted in the decade that followed the first Earth Day. That incredibly creative and important period ended when the “lame duck” Congress of December, 1980, passed the Superfund Toxic Waste clean-up bill, and when President Jimmy Carter signed an Executive Order giving EPA the authority to implement the new program on the day before he left office.

The first real effort to turn back the clock on environmental protection was attempted during the first two yeas of the Reagan Administration. Reagan appointed an anti-environmental administrator of EPA, Anne Gorsuch-Burford, and an even more reactionary Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. However, the bipartisan consensus behind environmental protection was so strong that in May, 1983, then-President Ronald Regan asked EPA’s first administrator, William (“Mr. Clean”) Ruckelshaus to return to head the agency. In May 1984, New York Times environmental reporter Phillip Shabecoff reported that:

“One year after his return as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, William D. Ruckelshaus is widely credited with restoring morale, stability, purpose and credibility to an agency he found in a state of chaos.”

Three decades later, we find the issue of environmental protection has evolved in a number of important ways. Environmental pollution is widely seen as a public health issue and broad public support for a clean environment is as strong today as it was in the first decade after Earth Day. Moreover, the issue of global sustainability and the connection of the planet’s environmental health to our economic wellbeing have moved from the fringes of the political agenda to its center. Sustainability is at or near the top of the modern global political agenda. At the core of that agenda is the need to:

  • Protect ecosystems and biodiversity;
  • Mitigate and adapt to climate change;
  • Protect and enhance water supply and quality;
  • Ensure adequate and healthy food;
  • Develop sustainable cities built with renewable energy and efficient transportation systems.
  • Reduce the impact of human-created waste on natural systems.
  • Develop businesses that minimize environmental impacts and maximize the use of renewable resources.

Except in the halls of the American Congress, these goals are not particularly controversial and are at the heart of the mission and vision of 2015’s Earth Day. Environmental protection is no longer simply cleaning up pollution after we’ve released it into our air, land and water, but is one element of an effort to build a sustainable economy. We have learned that there is a deep connection between economic wellbeing and a healthy environment. When we release toxics into ecosystems, we may gain short-term economic benefits, but before long the economic cost of clean up and of health impacts are far higher than the short-term benefits of dirty economic production. This fact of economic life has caused many people to question the premise of a trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth. Economic growth depends on the resources produced by a healthy, well-functioning set of ecosystems.

More important, humans are living organisms. We are not immune from the negative impacts of toxics released into the environment. People in Beijing are suffering from the impacts of dirty air. People in West Virginia last year went many days without being able to drink water from their faucets. Even wealthy people cannot fully insulate themselves from the negative effects of toxics in the air—you cannot build a gated community that will keep out air pollution.

We have learned a great deal about our planet and about human ingenuity since the first Earth Day was observed in 1970. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, we saw our economy and our pollution loads increase in tandem. This continued through the 1970s, but by the 1980s, the impact of environmental regulation in the United States started to bear fruit. We saw the GDP grow and the absolute levels of pollution start to decrease. For the most part, those trends have continued ever since. We have learned that we can grow our economy without destroying our natural resources. We’ve learned that we do not have to trade off economic growth against protection of the environment. We can develop technologies such as catalytic converters for cars, scrubbers for smoke stacks, advanced forms of sewage treatment and closed system manufacturing plants that enable our productivity to increase while our pollutant levels decrease.

We still have a lot to learn. We continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at a ferocious and destructive rate. The transition to a renewable resource based economy will be the theme of Earth Days for the next several decades. The institutional inertia and sunk costs of elements of the economy that depend on finite resources will not be easily addressed. Writing in the New York Times this past weekend, Diane Cardwell reported on the battle between the fast growing solar energy industry and state regulated electric utilities. She noted that some utilities:

“…are struggling to adapt to the growing popularity of making electricity at home, which puts new pressures on old infrastructure like circuits and power lines and cuts into electric company revenue. As a result, many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. In response, those solar companies are fighting back through regulators, lawmakers and the courts. The shift in the electric business is no less profound than those that upended the telecommunications and cable industries in recent decades. It is already remaking the relationship between power companies and the public while raising questions about how to pay for maintaining and operating the nation’s grid.”

As Cardwell observes, the rapidly advancing technology of the solar industry is something we have seen in other parts of our economy. Streaming video online is replacing cable TV. Cell phones are replacing landlines. The march of technology and the impact of human brainpower is a fact of modern life.

The issue for Earth Day, 2015, is how we marshal the forces of technology toward the goal of creating a sustainable, high-throughput economy. Some of these new technologies will damage our environment. Some, like solar power, can help protect the environment. We need to develop 21st century laws and regulations to police and steer these new technologies to ensure their benefits outweigh their costs. We need to invest in a comprehensive system of earth observation built on sound environmental science in order to more fully understand the impact of new technologies.

When Earth Day began 45 years ago, we did not know what threats the planet would face today. Some may have assumed by 2015 we would already be exploring new planets. What we have learned over these past four and a half decades is that we need this planet if we are to survive as a species. And we can manage this planet’s resources if we apply our hearts and minds to that task. We have made a great deal of progress since the first Earth Day, but we have a long way to go. Let’s keep going.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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