Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

22 Apr 2020

Earth Day at 50

Posted by Michael Keating

Half a century ago environmental problems were visible, smelly and mostly local. Some rivers were so polluted with oil they caught fire or killed birds that landed on them. Smokestacks belched clouds of dust, chemicals and fine metal particles into the air. Toxic chemicals were openly dumped into lakes and rivers. Gaylord Nelson, an American senator from Wisconsin, pushed for a rally to focus attention on environmental problems. He recruited Dennis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard University student to organize what became a nation-wide rally on April 22, 1970. So many people turned out that it put pressure on politicians to pass a series of powerful environmental laws in the United States and later in countries around the world. Today, Earth Day has been somewhat pushed to the side by the COVID-19 crisis. But, it’s a good time to take stock and look ahead. Since 1970, most nations have created environment departments and laws. They have brought in controls on acid rain, ozone-depleting chemicals and a wide range of pollutants. Motor vehicles are much cleaner and more efficient. However, we are still sliding into a series of crises. More parks have been created and some species saved. Now, we face new problems. Climate change, which was unknown to the public in 1970, is the greatest single threat to our future. Despite some successes in reforestation, the world’s wildlands are still shrinking and driving more species toward extinction. The oceans are being polluted and overfished. New chemicals are threatening our health. Plastic pollution is in our food and water. It’s hard to look ahead another 50 years, but we can see building pressures. In 1970, there were about 3.7 billion people on Earth. Since then we have more than doubled the population to about 7.8 billion, and it is projected to be more than 10 billion by 2070. It will take a huge amount of resources and energy to feed, house, clothe, move and employ so many. As the population grows, we must also cut our use of fossil fuels which provide about 80 per cent of current energy, reduce pressures on fish and wilderness, and cut back on many forms of pollution. It will take a massive shift in attitudes and behaviour. The question facing humanity is whether the changes come because the environmental crises have become so severe that we are forced to react, or will we develop the foresight and will to move before the environmental hammer falls on us?

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One Response to “Earth Day at 50”

  1. Thanks Michael – great retrospective! Regarding your question at the end – can we develop the foresight and will to move … ? – there’s a tremendous opportunity for us, if we can figure out how to take the first steps in a circular economy approach, and move to embedding this as business as usual everywhere. The YouTube video – A Good Disruption (2017) – highlights this opportunity! Worth taking 20 minutes to watch.
    A Good Disruption (2017)
    Martin Stuchtey, SystemIQ


    Ron Nielsen