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Remembering Earth Day

U.S. made tremendous environmental progress, but times have changed

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It’s worth remembering on this April 22, otherwise known as Earth Day, just how far the United States has come in terms of its environmental progress.
When the first Earth Day was celebrated back in 1970, many rivers in America were toxic sewers. Standing near the lower reaches of the St. Louis River near Duluth, in the 1970s, would make your eyes burn. Many species of wildlife were on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss or the spraying of toxic chemicals, like DDT. Smog choked many, if not most, of our major cities, and young children regularly ingested significant amounts of lead from the burning of gasoline.
It’s worth considering that the trumpeter swans that now routinely grace Minnesota skies with their beauty, or the sandhill cranes, whose calls now commonly echo across North Country swamps and fields, were once nearly gone or greatly depleted. The Rainy River below International Falls, which was so toxic in the 1970s that few fish could survive, has been restored and the fishery is teeming once again. It was an environmental ethic demanded by the public back then, that brought countless improvements in our environment and quality of life.
The litany of new laws penned, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, set the stage for cleaning up our waters and our air, and taking steps to protect the critical habitat necessary for the survival of so many species. Laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, helped to ensure that environmental impacts are considered when undertaking major projects in the U.S. The Clean Water and Clean Air acts provided a regulatory framework that helps to hold polluters accountable when they despoil our public waters or the air we breathe. The Endangered Species Act provides for the protection and recovery of species before it’s too late.
Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made, the prospects for the future of environmental protection in the U.S. and around the world, look increasingly cloudy. It’s worth noting that the landmark environmental bills mentioned just above were all passed nearly half a century ago, at a time when attitudes toward environmental protection in the U.S. were much different from today’s.
Half a century ago, support for environmental protection was found across the political spectrum. Back in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was approved unanimously in the U.S. Senate and the House voted in favor, 355-4. Other major environmental laws enjoyed similarly lopsided margins in Congress. Republican President Richard Nixon signed many of them into law.
Indeed, in the early years, Republicans often led the way in support of environmental protection. One of the earliest environmental laws, known as the Lacey Act, won passage in 1900 and protected many species of plants and wildlife from destruction for commercial purposes. At the time, countless herons, egrets, pelicans, swans, and other birds were being slaughtered commercially for their feathers and meat and many were close to extinction by the time Congress took action. The law was named for its chief author, John Lacey, an Iowa Republican.
Times have certainly changed, as have the environmental challenges. While the United States made real progress in addressing environmental concerns a half century ago, we have struggled to respond to the single biggest environmental challenge humans have ever faced— climate change. That’s true, in large part, because one of our nation’s two major parties has turned disturbingly hostile to environmental protection. Indeed, none of the major environmental laws, passed in the last century, could possibly get past a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate today. They remain law only because Democrats would block any attempt at repeal.
Perhaps the success of the environmental movement paved the way for its own derailment. Most of the landmark environmental laws have proven so effective that Americans can be forgiven for failing to recall the horrible environmental conditions found in so many parts of the country back in the 1950s and 60s.
Yet Americans are increasingly experiencing the effects of climate change and the dramatic increase in the number and severity of extreme events. Climate change is reordering the natural world and threatens an entirely new round of mass extinctions that laws like the Endangered Species Act have little ability to combat. Yet there’s little reason to expect meaningful action out of Washington given the current state of our politics.
While it’s worth celebrating our environmental successes on this Earth Day, we must make note of the fact that these successes are legacies of a political era that has long since disappeared. As we are faced with even greater environmental challenges today, it is very clear that America— both politically and culturally— is not up to the task.

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