Earth Day Since 1970: Winning Some Battles, but Losing the War

For those of us who were around for the first Earth Day in 1970, the steady but sure demise of our environment over the past 54 years has been nothing less than depressing.

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum were united in the effort to clean up the environment in the wake of the disastrous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in January of 1969 and the spectacle of the chemical-laden Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire a few months later.

Congress passed a bill, signed by Richard Nixon, creating the Environmental Protection Agency in December, 1970, and soon thereafter enacted the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act, all of which have accomplished a great deal to make our environment a healthier place both for us and the plants and animals with whom we share this planet.

However, with 50 years of hindsight, it is apparent that we fell victim to the well-worn axiom that we didn’t see the forest for the trees. All of the good that was accomplished by improving our air and water quality and saving some species from extinction has been far outweighed by the insidious onslaught of climate change that threatens to make the planet uninhabitable for almost every living thing, other than perhaps for cockroaches (which have been around for more than 300 million years).

Global warming, both of the air and the oceans, poses an existential threat to life as we know it, and is accelerating faster than even the worst-case scenarios that some climate scientists had predicted. Climate change epitomizes what scientists refer to as a positive feedback loop: The hotter we are today, the hotter we will be tomorrow.

Ocean temperatures have set heat records every day for the past year, and still are climbing. As a result, more than 50% of the world’s coral reefs presently are “bleached” and dying.

But with the world’s energy needs growing exponentially thanks to the industrialization of underdeveloped nations and the need in developed nations for ever-increasing sources of energy to run our AI computers, the chances of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is all but zero for the foreseeable future.

Even more insidiously, we literally are drowning in a sea of plastic waste. For those of us who grew up in the ‘60s, it is sadly ironic that the catch-word for the future in the movie, The Graduate, was, “Plastics!” — and now, 60 years later, we have learned that microplastics are accumulating in our tissues and in every organ in our bodies because they are in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Perhaps the coup de grace for the planet’s demise is that environmental groups are now their own worst enemies. The push to build wind and solar farms has been met by pushback from groups who insist on mandatory environmental reviews — established by those laws in the 1970s — that can hold up the installation of transmission lines for these clean energy projects for more than a decade.

In short, we have won many battles in the effort to clean up our environment and to save endangered plants and animals since the first Earth Day. We can swim and fish in Boston Harbor and even in the Charles River (the subject of the 1960s rock anthem, Dirty Water). The seal (and great white shark) population, which was non-existent in this area in 1970, has returned to Cape Cod in the tens of thousands each summer.

Although our air and water are free of many of the substances, such as leaded gasoline, emissions from coal-fired power plants, and DDT, that were poisoning the earth in 1970, their removal was just low-hanging fruit, amounting to nothing more than Pyrrhic victories.

The inconvenient truth is that climate change, an unheard-of concept in 1970, has left all living beings (except for the cockroaches) in a far more precarious place than we were 54 years ago.

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