Earth Day at 40: progress and pitfalls

Environmentalists see steps forward, backward on anniversary

April 21, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Brian Hughes was a typical suburban kid in the 1980s who didn't give much thought to where his food came from or what chemicals were used to produce it.

Now he's a farmer at Shaw Farm CSA in Columbia, supplying area families with organic fruits and vegetables. He also teaches others how to grow their own pesticide-free produce.

"People have begun to learn what's important," he said, reflecting on the changes in Americans' lives since the first Earth Day in 1970. "Their values have changed."

Since the birth of the modern environmental movement 40 years ago, many once-distant goals have been widely achieved. Americans today drive hybrid cars, recycle and use energy-sipping light bulbs. Their air and water have gained federal protections. Environmentalism has moved into the mainstream, many observers say, with consumers, governments, industry and the nation's largest retailer, Walmart, on board.

But on this Earth Day, as the environmental community cheers the advances and the public engagement, some also express disappointment that not everyone's habits have changed.

Species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and water and air aren't uniformly clean. Discarded petroleum-based plastic bags still get caught in trees, and toxins still end up in consumer products. Power plants still burn climate-warming fossil fuels.

Earth Day began in 1970, when then-Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson organized a nationwide protest to spotlight environmental degradation. Some 20 million people came out. Around the same time, Congress passed the Clear Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts, and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency were formed.

Over time, profound changes have both contributed to a green culture and made the cleanup job bigger, said Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, a nonprofit group that promotes environmentalism and organizes activities worldwide each year on April 22.

"Rivers rarely catch on fire anymore," she said. "We have a legacy that, on the surface, appears to have changed. But if you dig deeper, so much more needs to be done."

The U.S population nearly tripled in the last century to more than 300 million people, according to government numbers. About 80 percent live in urban and suburban areas, and they are using more resources and leaving a bigger footprint.

Meanwhile, Rogers said, the rise of computers has made access to information and communication easier, but as people spend more time online they become less in touch with the outdoors and community activism. More recently, the recession has left many people less interested in cleaner and greener products, which tend to cost more.

And just when the environmental community thought new leadership would again engage the masses, President Barack Obama announced plans to allow drilling for oil and natural gas off the Eastern seaboard.

"In the 1970s, the predominant pictures from the green community were of whales," Rogers said. "It's 2010, and we're still talking about saving the oceans. We take steps forward and major steps backward. It's not obvious how we're in a better place this Earth Day."

This year, some 1.5 billion people from 90 countries are expected to participate in Earth Day activities. Rogers said they will have to demand change from public officials and private businesses. That's true at the state and local level, too, said Gerald Winegrad, a former lawmaker and Chesapeake Bay advocate.

Winegrad attended the first Earth Day planning session with Nelson and said he didn't think much would come of it. While he's amazed and pleased that it's still an annual event, he said progress has come in fits and starts in Maryland.

"Smart Growth" was launched in the 1990s by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but the population is still spreading out to previously undeveloped land, and runoff from suburban and urban areas is the fastest-growing kind of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, launched 25 years ago, is still struggling, according to the latest report: In 2009, the program reached just 45 percent of its goals.

"I'm not just disappointed, I'm bitterly disappointed," Winegrad said. "I don't see political will. The Clean Water Act is violated, and there are no sanctions."

He acknowledged that many people recycle, install rain barrels and carry reusable shopping bags, but "as long as plastic bags are free and convenient, people will use them." He said laws with teeth and "sticks," as opposed to carrots, seem to be the only measures that uniformly work:

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