Earth Day Turns 40

Environmentalist pioneers have had it their way for four decades. It's time for a change.


Forty years ago this week, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day celebration. It was the largest national demonstration ever, with events taking place on 2,000 college campuses, 10,000 elementary and high schools, and with another 2,000 community groups. Before Earth Day, conservationists, anti-pesticide activists, and pollution control advocates separately pushed their causes, but after Earth Day these disparate groups melded into self-conscious parts of a broader environmentalist political movement. So how has the nation's environment fared since that day four decades ago?

Earth Day was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) who conceived of it as he was flying back from seeing the damage done by the Santa Barbara offshore oil well blowout in 1969. Nelson aimed to make Earth Day a national ecological teach-in modeled on the anti-war events then popular on college campuses. In January 1970, Nelson gave a major speech in the U.S. Senate outlining his environmental concerns. From the perspective of today, that speech set most of the environmentalist agenda for the next 40 years and, for good or ill, most of that agenda has been fulfilled.

Nelson opened by advocating a new constitutional amendment: "Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every State shall guarantee this right." So far there is no such amendment. But Nelson went on to set out five immediate action areas that aimed to "rid America in the 1970s of the massive pollution from five of the most heavily used products of our affluent age." The five areas were the internal combustion engine, hard pesticides, detergent pollution, aircraft pollution, and non-returnable containers.

Nelson proposed phasing out internal combustion engines by January 1, 1978, unless they met national emissions standards by that time. He proposed massive federal subsidies to achieve the phase-out. A few months after the first Earth Day, Congress passed the Clean Air Act which required that emissions of various gases by automobiles be cut by 90 percent by 1975. Pollution control devices called catalytic converters were installed on almost all new cars beginning in 1975. Since 1970, automobile hydrocarbon emissions have been reduced 99 percent, carbon monoxide by 96 percent, and nitrogen oxides by 99 percent.

Motivated by Rachel Carson's 1962 anti-pesticide book, Silent Spring, Nelson argued for the elimination of "persistent toxic pesticides," chiefly chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT. On December 31, 1972, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States. The use of DDT for agricultural spraying should have been halted. But unfortunately this comprehensive ban spread across the world, greatly hampering efforts to control malaria. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants essentially imposed a global ban on 12 organic pesticides.

In the 1960s Lake Erie was declared "dead" largely because of massive algae blooms that had depleted oxygen levels in the lake. Algal blooms—fertilized by nutrient pollution, especially phosphorus in laundry detergents—were affecting as many 10,000 bodies of water in the U.S. Phosphorus helped clean clothes washed in mineral rich water, i.e., "hard water." Although Congress held hearings on the phosphorus problem, federal action became superfluous after the majority of states banned phosphorus, forcing manufacturers to almost entirely eliminate it from their products by the late 1990s.

The EPA issued regulations to reduce aircraft emissions in 1973. With regard to non-returnable containers, Nelson argued, "It is my conviction that the long run answer to our sold waste problem must be a massive effort to turn our wastes into valuable new products that can be recycled into the economy." In 1973, Berkeley, California, became one of the first cities to mandate curbside recycling of newspapers. Currently, there are more than 8,500 curbside recycling programs in the U.S. and about 30 percent of municipal solid wastes are recycled. Part and parcel of this recycling movement are recent bans on plastic bags and imposed redemption fees on bottles and cans.

Once these five areas had been addressed—as they largely have been—Nelson proposed another nine future goals for the nascent environmental movement. Here's his list:

  1. Establish the right of every citizen to plan his family.
  2. Establishment of a federal environmental advocacy agency.
  3. Halt pollution of our seas—moratorium on Outer Continental Shelf oil drilling.
  4. Establish a national environmental education program encompassing pre-school through college.
  5. Divert money from interstate highway construction to public transportation.
  6. National land use planning so as to "halt the chaotic unplanned combination of urban sprawl and industrial expansion." This included a ban on strip mining and the filling of wetlands. In addition, he wanted to expand national parks and other reserves.
  7. Establish a national minerals and resource policy—change the mining law of 1872.
  8. Establish a nonpartisan national environmental political organization.
  9. Establish a national air and water quality policy.

Family planning was needed because as Nelson asserted, "If we cannot manage the wastes produced by 200 million people, it will be catastrophic when we reach 300 million, as predicted within the next 30 years." By 1970, the U.S. total fertility rate (the number of children a woman has over the course of her lifetime) had dropped from a recent peak of 3.7 in the late 1950s to a basic replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. To highlight population issues, Indiana University Women's Liberation Movement members threw oral contraceptives at participants in an Earth Day rally. Nevertheless, the U.S. population has grown to over 300 million, yet pollution levels have fallen steeply since 1970.

On December 2, 1970, the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened for business and began to administer the plethora of new environmental laws that were shortly passed by Congress. In 1988, the Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban Act which prohibited the disposal of sewage sludge and industrial waste in the seas by December 31, 1991. Congress first enacted legislation establishing a moratorium on oil drilling on the outer continental shelf, except for the western Gulf of Mexico, in 1982. President George W. Bush lifted that ban in 2008 and President Barack Obama recently declared that he would open some parts of the outer continental shelf to oil exploration beginning in 2012.

The EPA has devised an extensive educational outreach program for elementary and secondary schools. The interstate highway system was completed in 1992. Originally estimated to cost $25 billion ($185 billion inflation-adjusted) over 12 years, it actually cost an inflation-adjusted $425 billion. Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1970 and has since spent tens of billions on public transit systems. Meanwhile, public transit, which carried about 4 percent of urban travel in 1970, has now fallen to 1.6 percent today. Perhaps more Americans will turn to public transit once gasoline taxes are increased.

With regard to national land use planning, the Endangered Species Act functions in that role to some degree by limiting what landowners may do with their property. The federal government administers over 1 million square miles of protected areas (about 27 percent of the land area of the country), including national parks, wilderness areas, and so forth. For the record, U.S. forest area has been stable at around 750 million acres since 1910, despite the fact that our population has more than tripled since then. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that wetland acreage is no longer declining, and that there was a net annual average gain of wetlands of about 32,000 acres between 1998 and 2004. Earlier this month, the EPA announced new regulations that would greatly reduce the amount of strip mining permitted. The one total failure in achieving the agenda set out 40 years ago by Nelson is the fact that the 1872 Mining Act remains unreformed. Given the proliferation of environmentalist lobbying groups, Nelson's goal of establishing a national environmental political organization is superfluous.

Let's take a more in-depth look at Nelson's goal of establishing a national air and water quality policy. In his speech, Nelson declared, "Today it can be said that there is no more clear air left in the United States.…Today it can also be said that there is no river or lake that has not been affected by the pervasive wastes of our society." Nelson continued, "Tomorrow? Responsible scientists have predicted that accelerating rates air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors. It has also been predicted that that in 20 years man will live in domed cities."

Obviously, Nelson's dour pollution predictions did not materialize. We don't wear gas masks or live in domed cities. Since 1980, ambient concentrations of the six major regulated air pollutants have dropped by 54 percent, while U.S. population grew 34 percent, energy use increased 32 percent, automobile miles nearly doubled, and GDP rose by 126 percent. Specifically, ambient carbon monoxide is down 79 percent; ozone down 25 percent; nitrogen dioxide down 46 percent; sulfur dioxide down 56 percent, particulates down 68 percent.

Evaluating water pollution trends is a bit more complicated. Measuring water quality is difficult because each stream, lake, or estuary has its own unique characteristics. However, the EPA issues its National Water Quality Inventory report every two years. The reporting requirements and nomenclature have changed over time so it's hard to compare directly the older reports with the latest report. But to get some idea of water quality trends let's take a look at the 1984 report, the 1994 report, and the latest 2008 report (just issued in January). Under the 1970 Clean Water Act, water quality standards must, at a minimum, make possible beneficial uses providing for "the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife" and for healthful "recreation in and on the water."

According to the 1984 inventory, "the States reported that designated beneficial uses were found to be supported in most assessed waters including 73 percent of assessed river miles, 78 percent of assessed lake acres, and 82 percent of assessed estuarine and coastal waters. In the 1994 inventory, the EPA reported that 64 percent of America's assessed rivers and streams were in good condition. In 1994, 63 percent of the assessed country's lakes and reservoirs were in good condition, as were 63 percent of the nation's assessed estuaries. Water quality was chiefly impaired by bacteria, siltation, nutrient loading, and oxygen depletion. In 2008, the EPA reported that 56 percent of assessed streams were in good condition; only 36 percent of lakes were; and 71 percent of estuaries were in good condition.

On the face of it, the data from the national inventories would suggest that water quality in the U.S. has been declining for decades. But if one applies the original criteria, whether the assessed bodies of water supported fish, shellfish, and wildlife propagation or recreational uses, a somewhat different picture emerges. In 2008, 64 percent of assessed streams supported fish, shellfish, and wildlife propagation, and 72 percent supported recreation. With regard to lakes, 70 percent were good for wildlife and 74 percent were good for recreation. The most impaired use is aquatic life harvesting with only 26 percent good for that use. Seventy-three percent of estuaries are good for wildlife propagation and 87 percent are good for recreation. Looking at these measures, water quality has remained stable despite economic and population growth. Goal posts have been moved so that quality standards have gotten higher over time, but those of us who lived through this period can testify that water quality has vastly improved.

Looking back, we can see that Nelson and the nascent environmental movement largely misdiagnosed the problem. In advocating massive government intervention as a way to handle environmental problems, Nelson decried private enterprise, declaring, "We assumed that, if private enterprise could be such a spectacular success in production of goods and services, it could do our social planning for us, too, set our national priorities, shape our social system, and even establish our individual aspirations." Nelson and other activists saw heedless private enterprise as the cause of environmental problems, not as a solution to them.

America's prosperity not only created pollution, but the wealth and institutions of technological innovation that enabled the country to address the problems caused by pollution. The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of technocratic centralized planning, and so top-down regulatory schemes were preferred by politicians. The success in reducing air and water pollution shows that top-down regulatory schemes can work. However, environmental regulations are costly. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Resources for the Future, estimated in 2003 that the United States spent roughly 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on environmental protection. That's about $280 billion per year. That figure matches up with one generated by a free-market think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which estimated in 2009 that environmental regulatory costs came to $236 billion per year.

The environmental degradation that rightly concerned Nelson and other early environmentalists occurred in open access commons—areas where no one owned the resource and so had no incentive to protect and conserve it. Instead, the incentive of people operating in an open access commons is to grab as much as possible as quickly as possible because otherwise someone else will take it before they can. Thus airsheds, rivers, government forests, oceans, and even highways were polluted and degraded. Relying on this insight, I hope that future environmentalists will find that enclosing the commons, rather than using the blunt instrument of political regulation, will more effectively protect and restore the natural world.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.