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How Far We've Come: Victories Since the First Earth Day

How Far We've Come: Victories Since the First Earth Day

Mar 3rd 2020

It can often feel like the world is falling to pieces. We are steadily fed negative information at every turn - about the environment, politics, the economy, safety, health, and more.

But even as tragic things unfold in the world, there are also pretty spectacular stories of hope, progress and change. In today’s blog post, we highlight inspiring environmental victories since the first Earth Day rallies were held on April 22, 1970. We share these to remember just how poor environmental conditions were in the 1960’s, to celebrate how far we have come, to remind ourselves of the power of collective action, and to reinforce the importance of legislation that has helped us come this far.

1. DDT Banned

In 1972, EPA banned the use of DDT based on its adverse environmental and health effects. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a colorless, nearly odorless insecticide that was widely used in the post-war era to increase farm productivity and fight mosquitoes. When it was first introduced as an agricultural chemical, it garnered a lot of excitement, as well as a Nobel Prize.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote about research connecting DDT with a number of health and environmental concerns. For example, the chemical was thinning the eggs of many birds, leading to a near extinction of many of them, including the bald eagle. New research has also tied DDT exposure with human reproductive health issues issues and alzheimers.

In 1972, ten years after Silent Spring was released, DDT was finally banned, a decision that was likely influenced by the collective action of environmentalists, many whom were inspired by Earth Day rallies. 

Several decades after DDT was banned, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and other endangered bird species returned from the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, DDT continues to persist in the environment for a long time, and we continue to see its harmful consequences for wildlife, plant life and humans. Hopefully we can better apply what we'e learned from our mismanagement of DDT and apply these lessons to the current landscape of chemicals used for agriculture and pest control.   

2. Much Cleaner Rivers and Lakes

Two massive oil spills into Minnesota rivers devastated fish and wildlife in the early 1960s. 

In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire—for the tenth time (photo shown above)

Time Magazine had an article, “The Cities: The Price of Optimism,” describing the Cuyahoga River:

No Visible Life. Some river! Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,” Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. “He decays.” The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” It is also—literally —a fire hazard. A few weeks ago, the oil-slicked river burst into flames and burned with such intensity that two railroad bridges spanning it were nearly destroyed. “What a terrible reflection on our city,” said Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes sadly.

Time Magazine also reported that Lake Erie was dying from all the waste dumped into it. St. Louis took its drinking water from the muddy Missouri River because their other option, the Mississippi, was teaming with pollution.

Enter the Clean Water Act of 1972, which states that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful unless authorized by a permit. For the first time, companies had to answer to how they disposed of their waste! The act sets controls for corporations and municipalities, and requires dischargers to meet strict pollutant controls to meet water quality targets.

Ultimately, the Clean Water Act’s goal was to make all rivers in the country swimmable and fishable again. We have come a LONG way since this time. Waterways no longer catch on fire, many rivers and lakes are swimmable and fishable again, and plants and factories are being held to high standards as to how to best manage their waste and wastewater.

As we look forward, we hope to see better management of what is considered “nonpoint source” pollution, or pollution that does not originate from a concrete source that can be managed. Agricultural runoff - pesticides and fertilizers - are two of the biggest culprits of this. This type of pollution continues to be on the rise across the nation.

3. Our Air is Far More Breathable

In the 1960’s, smog was a standard of life in most industrial cities. 

Smog was standard in New York City as well (the photo above is a picture from the top of the Empire State Building on one of NYC's smoggiest days). The city experienced two severe smog events in which an “Indian summer heat inversions trapped the chemicals and particulates from industrial smokestacks, chimneys, and vehicles that crammed the city streets, keeping the pollutants from rising.” In 1953, the smog closed at least two airports, caused respiratory issues among many New York residents, and caused the death of 170 to 200 people. In 1966, a similar smog occurred over Thanksgiving killing about 200 people. Los Angeles faced similar challenges as did all Midwestern industrial cities. People often reflect on the fact that you could reach out and touch the soot back then.

Then came the Clean Air Act of 1970, which authorized the development of comprehensive federal and state regulations to limit emissions from both industrial sources and from automobiles. From 1970 to 2014, combined national emissions of six common pollutants--carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide--dropped an average of 69 percent. WE have also eliminated the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. All of this has occurred while the country’s GDP has tripled, energy consumption has increased by 50 percent, and vehicle use nearly doubled.With these drops comes improvements in people’s respiratory health and people’s ability to enjoy the cities they live in.

4. The Ozone is Healing

If you were around in the 1980’s, chances are you were steeped in concerns about the hole in the ozone layer for some time (and likely yelled at people around you who were using aerosol sprays). Scientists were concerned that the loss of the ozone layer could lead to blistering rates of skin cancer and other problems.

We don’t talk about the hole in the ozone anymore. Why? Because steps taken to address this issue were actually successful! The ozone hole is now healing.

In 1987, many of the world's nations came together to agree on the Montreal Protocol, which outlawed a series of chemicals that had been destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer, including (especially) chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Recent studies have shown that a decline in ozone-depleting chemicals has resulted in 20 percent less depletion since 2005. Specifically chlorine levels declined by 0.8 percent each year between 2005 and 2016.

"We see very clearly that chlorine from [chlorofluorocarbons] is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it," Susan Strahan, lead author and atmospheric scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

5. Gray Wolves Population is Steadily Growing 

Wolves once roamed freely throughout North America, in numbers estimated at some 2 million. They were considered a nuisance and danger, leading to systematic federal extermination programs that reduced their numbers to just 300 wolves in the lower 48. Those 300 or so wolves hid from humans in upper Michigan and Minnesota.

In 1974, the wolves became protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Over time, we realized how important wolves are to the ecosystem, and identified them as a key stone species because their actions as predators have significant impact on the population density and movement patterns of prey (and all of the species below them on the food chain). This phenomenon is known as the "Trophic Cascade."

Protection efforts have been fairly successful. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, helping to restore balance to prey species and even changing the course of rivers. 

Today, around 6,000 wolves roam the west and the upper Midwest.