April 22, 2020 will mark the 50th Earth Day. Globally, it is now the largest secular event in the world, and its next occurrence is expected to draw 1 billion participants of all ages. Earth Day has sensitized many, but not all, to the tenuous nature of our environment.
One of our first wake-up calls, well before the first Earth Day, was Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in the fall of 1962, awakening us to how indiscriminate pesticide usage was affecting our ecology. Carson’s book sold 500,000 copies in 24 countries to a reading audience that had — if they thought of it at all — viewed environmental degradation as simply an artifact of industrial progress.
One “progress” artifact was a 1969 offshore drilling well oil spill at Santa Barbara, California, which still ranks as the third largest. Soon thereafter, Time magazine featured a different sort of artifact: a picture of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River — on fire. Then came Love Canal, New York, where hundreds of homes were discovered to have been built on top of 21,000 tons of toxic industrial waste, buried underground 30 years earlier.
Such had been the zeitgeist of the times. Unregulated industries dumped whatever they chose into our waters and spewed whatever into the air people breathed. Few took notice.
Fortunately, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson did notice. In 1995, President Bill Clinton noticed Nelson, too, awarding him the nation’s highest civilian accolade, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his role in establishing Earth Day. Nelson conceived of Earth Day in 1969 after viewing the effects of the Santa Barbara oil spill. Politically, compared to today, it was a get-things-done era of bipartisanism and compromise, and Nelson found a buddy in Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey.
Culturally, it was a year of revolt. Young Americans were full to the gills of the cultural status quo — Google “Woodstock,” if you must — and full of never-ending war, anti-war energy, energy that Nelson and McCloskey wanted to tap. They chose Harvard University’s 25-year-old Denis Hayes to develop and coordinate their idea.
Hayes scheduled the first event for April 22, 1970, between many colleges’ spring break and final exams. It attracted 20 million mainly young Americans, then roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population.
“Silent Spring,” ecological disasters and Earth Day stoked our ecology consciousness, and led to huge “green” legislation. These were ecological watershed years. December 1970 saw the passage of President Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Then Congress dusted off the Clean Air Act of 1963, ineffectual guidelines states could use to regulate hazardous air emissions. Both implementation and enforcement were shifted to the newly formed EPA. Ditto when the toothless 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act became the Clean Water Act of 1972, and found meaningful new life under EPA authority.
Amendments to the CAA and CWA and subsequent similar laws would ultimately establish the U.S. as a world leader in damaged environment remediation — right up to 2017. One such law was the Superfund, enacted following Love Canal to require polluters to pay for cleanup costs, or to use public money if responsible parties could not be found. Incidentally, presently there are 36 active Superfund sites in North Carolina, with three proposed for the National Priorities List. Three of the 36 sites are in Aberdeen.
Depletion of the ozone layer is one thing no one worried about in the 1970s; it was too high up in the stratosphere. The stratosphere is so named because it consists of stratified or layered gases, one of which is ozone.
Think of ozone as Mother Earth’s sunscreen. It absorbs about 98 percent of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, which causes bad stuff like skin cancer. We started worrying about ozone in May 1985 when British scientists discovered a great big ozone hole over the Antarctic.
Culprits responsible for ozone depletion are called chlorofluorocarbons. That mouthful is typically referred to as greenhouse gases, primarily water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide gets the worst rap, but methane gas is more destructive to the ozone, and traps the most heat.
Manmade products and practices emanate CFCs. According to NASA, 97 percent of scientists believe climate change is manmade.
The Paris Climate Accord is a global agreement among participating nations to control global warming. The U.S. has announced that it will be officially withdrawn from the Accord as of Nov. 4, 2020. Harvard and Columbia law schools have announced that more than 90 environmental regulations have been rolled back or targeted for rollback under the present administration.
Controls for methane emissions are part of those regulations. Others include clean air emission standards from automobiles and coal-burning power plants, and rules requiring disclosure of chemicals and other details of fracking operations. Eliminating environmental controls is all about big biz.
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines resident.