Reflections on Earth Day

April 22, 2021
Blue Marble - 1972

Astronaut photograph AS17-148-22727, the first "Blue Marble" photo, taken on December 7, 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy of the NASA Johnson Space Center (public domain)

I was born into the environmental equivalent of a horror movie, at that time when you realize that there is a threat but you don't know what to do about it.

Awareness had been building for some time, but Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, laid out what was really happening, making it public in a way that no one had done before. The first iteration of the Clean Air Act passed Congress a year later. And then there were public, visible occurrences that made the problem of our toxic pollution of our land, air and water undeniable. The Cuyahoga River would regularly catch on fire due to the amount of pollutants dumped into its waters buy industry - a practice that was completely legal at the time. An oil rig in the Santa Barbara Channel blows out, creating a slick of 800 square miles and killing 10,000 birds. Pollution leads to massive fish kills on Lake Erie. By the late 1960s, a movement is catching fire, leading to a variety of events: the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund to start litigation to stop the use of DDT, the Sierra Club fights and successfully defeats an effort by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to place two dams in the Grand Canyon.

Enter Earth Day, which was first celebrated in 1970 and has now grown to be the "largest secular observance in the world," with a billion annual participants.

From 1970-74, a series of federal laws are passed: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, updates to the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. With decades of damage caused by the prolific release of industrial toxins into the environment, it takes time to reverse the damage. I still remember seeing a series of "Keep America Beautiful" commercials with the Native American warrior ("The Crying Indian") on horseback or in a canoe, looking at what humans have done to pollute the natural world, crying in reaction to what he sees.

In the 1980s, we still had some lingering challenges to be addressed. By the mid-1980s, scientists knew that the density of the ozone layer was decreasing around the world, creating threats of exposure to harmful rays from the sun that would have broad-reaching impacts, from increases in skin cancer to eye cataracts in humans to endangering plans and animals. But nations, including the United States, came together and banned on production and use of over 100 chemicals that caused ozone depletion, including hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs). Now, the ozone layer has recovered significantly, and we no longer hear concerns about it. When I was first posted at Long Beach Naval Station in 1989, I was not aware that there were mountains to the east of Los Angeles. It took four months before the smog line was low enough to see the tips of the San Gabriel Mountains peeking above the smog line. Now, you can regularly see the mountains when in the Los Angeles area. It just took a few decades for the mandates of the Clean Air Act to take effect.

In many ways, we have made significant advances since that horrific period of the 1960s. We have shown what collective action matched by regulation of industry can do to improve our environmental problems. I think of this history when I hear of people speak about climate change, and how impossible it is to do anything about it. On the progressive side of the spectrum, I can hear climate change advocates speak entirely of the gloom and doom of what climate change will do to our planet, to human civilization, without any reference to what can be done about it. On the conservative side, there is still a solid contingent of climate change denial (despite the extensive scientific consensus to the contrary), an admission that it may exist but is not caused by humans, or an assertion that no regulation and no action can do anything to curb its effects. And while climate change denial benefits, and is even funded by, the oil industry, that industry has known for some time that climate change is real, and they even made their own plans to face it while simultaneously fighting regulation to address it. The industry spends millions to fight the Green New Deal while transitioning to make renewable energy a larger part of its portfolio.

So, think about the healing ozone layer, the cleaner air of Los Angeles, the Cuyahoga River no longer catching on fire, and the many other improvements that have been made since Rachel Carson's harrowing revelation. Think of the technological advancements that have been made in various industries in response to the laws that required them to operate in a way that minimized pollution to our air and water. Think about those when you hear people say that nothing can be done about climate change. Our history is full of our facing challenges head on, of not being afraid of change, of being stalwart in our determination that we can be better, do better, and live better. The present challenge of climate change is more of an opportunity than a burden, so long as we have the right leadership in place to take us forward.

And despite our progress, we must remain forever vigilant. In four years, the Trump Administration worked hard to eradicate 50 years of progress on the environment, completely gutting more than 100 environmental rules. If we are going to meet the challenges as we must, and enjoy the fruits of progress that has brought us here, we cannot allow something like that to happen again.

In the meantime, please still take responsibility for what you do to your local environment. While out photographing birds this morning in a local lagoon, I found an abundance of trash along the water's edge.

Astronaut photograph AS17-148-22727, the first "Blue Marble" photo,  taken on December 7, 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission....

Astronaut photograph AS17-148-22727, the first "Blue Marble" photo, taken on December 7, 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy of the NASA Johnson Space Center (public domain)