Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer New Era for Earth

The simple environmental problems have been solved. Now comes the tough part -- reforming people.

By Debbie Gilbert

MAY 1, 2000:  Thirty years ago this Saturday, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) and environmentalist Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day celebration. There were no corporate sponsorships back then, just a lot of grassroots groups who managed to rally an estimated 20 million people to show up and make a difference. And in the long run, they did.

While the state of the environment is still deteriorating rapidly in some areas of the world, Americans are, for the most part, much better off than they were three decades ago. Mirroring the course of the civil rights movement, environmental quality improved because people spoke out about what they felt was wrong.

The first Earth Day observances were similar in tone to the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Participants made it clear that they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore. And who could blame them? At the time, Los Angeles was shrouded in smog so thick you couldn't see the skyline. Factories and sewer plants were allowed to dump raw waste directly into streams -- a circumstance that led to Ohio's Cuyahoga River actually catching on fire in 1969.

It got so bad that even our slow-witted politicians realized something had to be done, if for no other reason than to help them get reelected. Thus in 1970, President Nixon -- yes, Nixon, a Republican -- created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose job it would be to enforce new, far-reaching federal laws that demanded clean air and water, endangered-species protection, and other reforms.

You may gripe, as many do, about the EPA's heavy-handed regulations. But there is undeniable evidence that these rules have been effective. In L.A., you can see the mountains again. People in formerly soot-choked Pittsburgh can breathe again. Bald eagles can reproduce again, now that DDT has been banned. Dead fish no longer wash up on the shores of the Great Lakes. In Memphis, the Wolf River is no longer a repository for city sewage.

It's not a perfect world, not by a long shot. There are still polluters. But now we have the mechanisms in place to deal with those polluters. If you don't believe it, ask officials in metro Atlanta, which has violated the EPA's ozone standard so many times that the city has been declared ineligible for federal highway funds until it cleans up its act.

There are some people -- chiefly those employed by conservative think-tanks -- who argue that government regulation had nothing to do with it, that the improvement in environmental quality was brought about by market forces. And there's some validity to that point of view. But most of the changes would have happened slowly, or not at all, without some prodding from Uncle Sam.

Take the issue of pollution from car tailpipes. The public wasn't clamoring for cleaner-burning cars. Nobody picketed Chrysler demanding that catalytic converters be installed on their vehicles. On the contrary, many people didn't want the contraptions because the early catalytic converters decreased engine performance. But the EPA said something had to be done to cut vehicle exhaust emissions.

The automobile industry hollered bloody murder at the requirement. First they said it was impossible. Then they admitted the technology was feasible, but claimed it would be so expensive the average person would no longer be able to afford a new car. Eventually, pushed by regulations -- and by competition from the Japanese, who didn't seem to have a problem with building more efficient cars -- U.S. automakers improved their product.

They've also managed -- again, with "encouragement" from the feds -- to boost average fuel economy from 14.2 miles per gallon in 1974 to 26.3 mpg in 1999. Unfortunately, that last figure represents a drop from the mid-1990s high of almost 29 mpg, as consumer demand for gas-guzzling SUVs has thrown all thoughts of fuel efficiency out the window. Well, not quite.

Earlier this year, Honda introduced the Insight, the first mass-marketed electric/gasoline-powered hybrid. It gets 70 miles to the gallon, and Detroit better listen up because it's the wave of the future.

Perhaps capitalizing on the recent surge in oil prices and resulting consumer angst, the organizers of Earth Day 2000 have chosen renewable energy as their theme. Back in the 1970s, government took action to clean up America's air and water; now, activists say, we need the same leadership to promote alternative sources of energy -- and somebody in charge with the backbone to stand up against the oil industry.

There's no question that it can be done, especially if government and business work together instead of fighting each other. But the worst environmental problems confronting us in 2000 are not ones that will be easily solved by more regulation.

This time, it's not the evil corporations doing the damage. It's us. It's the fact that there are more of us, and each one of us wants more and takes more. Ten years ago, no one ever heard the words "urban sprawl." Now, it's the number-one environmental issue for most metropolitan areas.

When city planners discuss why sprawl is bad, they cite problems like increased traffic and diminished quality of life. What they don't often mention is who gets hurt, besides us. It's estimated that in the U.S., sprawl consumes about 160 acres of land every hour. We have lost 95 percent of our old-growth forests, 55 percent of our wetlands, 99 percent of our native prairies.

What lives in those places? It ain't people -- or at least, it didn't used to be. Loss of biodiversity looms as one of the biggest environmental threats of the 21st century. We humans can live just about anywhere we can drive our bulldozers. But many plants and animals can survive in only a certain type of habitat, and when that habitat is gone, they're out of luck.

Wildlife biologists agree that at some point during this century, government-owned land will be the only place many of these species can still be found. When Teddy Roosevelt and his pals came up with the idea of national parks, they had no idea they were creating a last refuge against the advance of malls and condominiums. Imagine what the Grand Canyon would look like today if developers were allowed to build houses along the rim.

But there are limits to what government can do, at least in a democracy. No regulatory agency is going to tell us we can't have the American dream -- a big house on a comfortable lot "out in the country," couple of kids, couple of vehicles. Nor would we want them to.

In this new century, the fate of the environment lies not so much with the EPA as with individuals. Each of us has to look to our own conscience and ask, What's the difference between what I want and what I really need? And is there a way to get what I want without causing undue harm -- by building with recycled materials, for example, or heating with solar energy?

On this Earth Day, let's give some thought to living lightly on the planet. Because there are so many more of us treading on the Earth, each of us needs to try to leave a smaller footprint. n


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