We appear to be headed toward an era of complacency and indifference when in comes to understanding the growing global threats we face in preserving and protecting our survival. It has been some 47 years since the country was ignited with an environmental passion for saving our planet. The first national Earth Day on April 22, 1970 drew 20 million Americans to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.
The 1970s were a turbulent time with an unpopular Vietnam war and equally unpopular president who wanted to be remembered as the “environmental president.” Although much of our early environmental legislation was enacted during President Nixon’s term, it was not the president but the leadership of members of Congress such as Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., John Dingell, D-Mich., Henry Reuss, D-Wis., Edward Muskie, D-Maine, and Henry Jackson, D-Wash., who led the charge.
It was a politically desirable subject at that time and politicians rushed to support groundbreaking environmental legislation. But the problems then were the low-hanging fruit we could see and smell. Even so, it took some notable ecological disasters in 1969 like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the Cuyahoga River chemical fire to raise much of that awareness before the Federal government assumed the primary role of protector of our natural and human resources.
Today we are facing a much greater, more elusive, complex and pervasive set of global challenges that are not easily understood or solved with technical fixes. Global warming, desertification of cropland, fresh water shortages, depletion of natural resources, ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification to name just a few. A world that watches 5,000 children die every day from lack of clean drinking water and another 21,000 people who die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations.
Sadly, it is children who die most often even though there is plenty of food in the world for everyone.
Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the lack of concern and action by the leadership of one of the world’s richest and most capable nations. Despite our progress at home in managing those early environmental problems, we have failed miserably in transferring our successes to the global stage that is left in chaos and decline.
The new global challenges are not ones that can be solved by simply enacting more laws in Washington, assuming the Congress had the capability to do so. It is doubtful that we could muster today the same bipartisan support we enjoyed in 1970s.
It is time again for a siren call to see how distant we are from achieving those first Earth Day goals for a healthier, more humane planet. Although it is unlikely that the Trump Administration can significantly harm the basic environmental laws already enacted, its current efforts to suppress the progress made on international cooperation toward achieving meaningful reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are threatening.
With an EPA Administrator who doubts that climate change is real and is disposed to eliminating thousands of EPA jobs, a president who slashes the budgets of science, health and education in order to feed the military complex, and a political party in control that wishes to increase the gifting of tax breaks to corporations for expanding the use of fossil energy, there should be little doubt that we most urgently need a new Earth Day spirit to rekindle the lost passion for saving our planet and a finding a healthier way of life for our progeny.
Skip Spensley is an environmental lawyer and Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels Business School. He directed the first Earth Day activities in Washington, D.C. in 1970.
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