On Earth Day, hope for the environment

As the US celebrates Earth Day this Saturday, there is good news to report on the environment for a change.

• Air pollution has decreased 50 percent overall, with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides dropping steadily.

• Lakes in the Northeast are recovering from their earlier dousing with acid rain.

• Endangered species, including bald eagles, wolves, and grizzly bears, have rebounded.

• Cars no longer burn leaded gasoline.

• Ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been generally phased out.

It's in sharp contrast to the first Earth Day in 1970 when there were signs of serious trouble.

Back then, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted it caught fire. The Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., was permanently evacuated when a chemical dump was discovered just below the topsoil. Bald eagles were dwindling toward extinction. And as the EPA administrator Steve Johnson remembered recently, "air pollution was so thick that in some cities people had to change their shirts twice a day."

"The facts speak for themselves," says Steven Hayward, author of the 2006 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, released last week by the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "It's impossible to deny the environmental improvements we've made and the certain progress we'll continue to make over time."

Among the indicators included in the report: A steady increase in the percentage of toxic waste superfund sites where contaminated groundwater has been controlled; a large drop in the rate of automobile hydrocarbon emissions; while the number of cars and miles driven has more than doubled since 1970, smog levels have dropped, resulting in far fewer "code red" days in Los Angeles, Washington, and other cities.

In the context of economic and social trends, such improvements may be more impressive.

Between 1970 and 2004, total emissions of the six major air pollutants (nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and lead) dropped by 54 percent at the same time that the US population grew 40 percent, energy consumption increased 47 percent, and gross domestic product increased 187 percent, according to the EPA.

Though environmental activists spend most of their time hammering politicians and bureaucrats over the problems, they agree that progress has been made since that first Earth Day.

"Thanks to strong safeguards, which were generally won after tooth-and-nail battles, we've made some real strides on basic clean air and clean water," says Jon Coifman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "Rivers aren't catching fire anymore, and you can see the sky in Los Angeles."

But all is not sweetness and light from environmentalists' point of view. "Growth and sprawl are working against the positive trends," says Mr. Coifman. "Species are still disappearing, and we're up against the granddaddy of them all in global warming, which if allowed to continue at its current, unprecedented rate, will overwhelm everything else, successes and failures alike."

Still, important legislation passed after that first Earth Day - the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and others - have positively impacted the environment.

Public knowledge and attitudes regarding the environment have also changed. "EPA has not just changed the way our environment looks, EPA has changed the way we look at our environment," Mr. Johnson said this year, noting his agency's 35th anniversary.

Environmental education is now part of most schools' curricula. All major religions have taken up protecting "God's creation." Public information such as the EPA's annual Toxics Release Inventory lets people know where pollution is in their community and who's responsible for it.

Many businesses have accepted - often welcomed - programs and policies that will clean up their operations, and are good for business and the environment. Many industry leaders grew up when Earth Day was a new idea, and they've shaped their approach to manufacturing, distribution, and waste disposal, accordingly.

Since 1970, there is a much larger human "footprint" on the environment. The US population has grown by more than 95 million people. The rate of economic output per unit of pollution or energy consumption has increased steadily. Human activities in the US still result in some 140 million tons of the six major air pollutants being emitted every year.

"It's true that human beings cause lots of environmental problems, but we're a creative species," says Hayward. "And when we put our minds to it we're pretty good at figuring out ways to remediate some of the environmental damage we do, protect species, protect land, reduce pollution, and so forth."

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