OK — I’m being harsh. Some would even say pessimistic. But hear me out!
The first Earth Day can only be remembered as revolutionary. 20 million Americans came out (10% of the population) to protest for clean air and clean water.
It set off a domino effect of environmental lawmaking for the next ten years: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, The Endangered Species Act, a new pesticide law, Superfund, the Safe Drinking Water, to name just a few. The EPA was born!
While none of these laws are perfect, together they represent something that is sorely absent today: Ambition. Vision. Collective Action. A desire to actually protect the environment.
All of these laws were passed with one non-partisan goal in mind: to safeguard air, water, and habitat from pollution and destruction, ultimately improving quality of life for all Americans.
And it largely worked.
The Clean Air Act has helped cut smog, reduce mercury emissions, diminish the components of acid rain, and decrease amounts of lead in gasoline — all of which have prevented premature death and cut air pollution.
The Clean Water Act has kept billions of pounds of pollution out of waterways by creating clean water standards across the U.S. The others safeguard wildlife habitat, protect drinking water, and address hazardous waste.
But this explosive decade of policy and environmental change is long over and has been overshadowed by the environmental disasters and massive disinformation campaigns that came after.
Looking back from the edge of the looming climate catastrophe, you have to ask yourself — what happened?
Corporate polluters continued to do what they do best — work around the rules and skirt all responsibility.
But they did more than that. They created a decades-long deception campaign to deceive the public on climate change, leaving Americans vulnerable and exposed, living in the only industrialized nation on Earth that does not accept climate science.
1970 was the peak of environmentalism in the U.S., but we have not yet hit the peak of environmental degradation. And left unchecked, climate change is only going to make things worse.
We cannot expect corporations to hold themselves accountable. It’s clear — if we’re going to win this battle, we’ll need to hit corporate polluters in the courts and in Congress.
If we don’t get to an Earth Day level of commitment again, we’re done.
In 1970, Americans proved we are ready — and desperate for — bold policies to save the environment. That’s the kind of ambition we need again now, 50 years later.