5 environmental wins to celebrate

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about planet Earth – rising carbon emissions, long bouts of extreme weather, development’s strain on local ecosystems, among others. But it is worth taking a look at some of the areas where humans have made progress on energy and the environment.

It can take decades or longer to show signs of positive environmental change, so most good news doesn't show up in everyday headlines. A gradually more efficient economy or fewer pollutants in the air are not exactly breaking news, but they are benchmarks worth noting. A lot of that progress has come since (and a result of) the first Earth Day in 1970. Advances in science, engineering, and technology have made it easier for humans to maintain higher standards of living while minimizing the impact on local animals, wildlife, as well as the global climate. There is hope that as a new wave of economies modernize, they can do so more cleanly and efficiently than past industrializations.  

Of course, the environment still faces enormous challenges. Most notably, scientists have come to better understand how the consumption of carbon-heavy fuels can trap heat in our atmosphere. Over decades of analysis and discourse, climate change remains a pressing and divisive issue. Perhaps, there are lessons to be learned in confronting future challenges from five past environmental successes.   

Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle/AP
A volunteer transports leaves and brush off the trail during the Housatonic River Walk cleanup for the annual Earth Day Workday in Great Barrington, Mass., Saturday.

1. Air and water pollution

Jeff Wheeler/The Star Tribune/AP
A visitor leaps from one stone to another further along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

Developed nations have drastically improved air and water quality while sustaining economic growth. Between 1990 and 2008, the US cut emissions of six common pollutants by 41 percent, while gross domestic product (GDP) grew 64 percent, according the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of that success is attributed to the the Clean Air Act, first signed in 1970 and revised in 1990. The nation's water, too, is cleaner.  Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash have been averted from US waterways, and the number of American waters that meet standards for swimming and fishing has doubled, according to the EPA.

Still, conventional pollutants still pose a challenge to developed nations and are a rising challenge for the developing world – The skies of Los Angeles may be clearer, but Beijing is coming to grips with a smog problem of its own. Meanwhile, the risks of greenhouse gas emissions have reached new levels of urgency.

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