Blog: Earth Day, How Things Have Changed in 44 Years


Happy 44th Earth Day. We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first observance of Earth Day in 1970: an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., the dead zone in Lake Erie, smog in Los Angeles, and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of conservation laws including the Clean Air, Clean Water, Toxic Substances Control, National Environmental Policy, and Endangered Species acts. It’s amazing to think that these laws are of such recent vintage and how different life was before them. As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those from years ago. We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships, and deeper wells.

Lake Erie and other bodies of water remain challenged — but now by what we call “invasive species” and more below-the-radar and harder-to-control sources of contamination.

While there has been much success in reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead, and mono-nitrogen oxides from our daily lives, and in healing the “ozone hole,” we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything L.A. ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the low-hanging fruit of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking, engaging, or even (less) certain (outcomes) than dead fish and burning rivers. Consequently, there’s much more debate about how to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.

The issues are just as important — maybe more so — but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation will agree on what comes next relating to our environment with the singular mind we saw in 1970.

Arthur H. Siegal is a partner with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss and a regular contributor to DBusiness.

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