Today is Earth Day, or as the United Nations calls it, International Mother Earth Day. It was first celebrated in 1970, which also coincided with the founding of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has a webpage highlighting the history of the agency and the role it has played in promoting environmentalism,
It may be hard to imagine that before 1970, a factory could spew black clouds of toxic into the air or dump tons of toxic waste into a nearby stream, and that was perfectly legal. They could not be taken to court to stop it.
How was that possible? Because there was no EPA, no Clean Air Act, no Clean Water Act. There were no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect our environment.
The New York Daily News highlights some of the effects that environmentalism has had in cleaning up the Big Apple. Of course Canadians are also celebrating Earth Day, and Stephen Hume highlights some of the successes we have had in Canada:
Waste diversion: …According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, although Canadian waste generation increased by eight per cent between 2004 and 2006, urban diversion programs meant that 22 per cent of the total of 35 million tonnes – that's 7.7 million tonnes – did not go to disposal sites but was recycled or reused…
The Boreal Forest: …the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement… protects 72 million hectares within Canada's share of the world's largest intact forest stretching from B.C. to Newfoundland. It integrates large-scale habitat protection for species like woodland caribou and lynx with significantly higher environmental standards for sustainable forest management. Environmental activists have said that its importance "cannot be overstated" as a model for the rest of the world…
Clean Water: Since initiatives to attack the problem of acid rain began in the 1970s, there's been significant progress in protecting Canada's lakes and rivers from both excessive extraction for residential and industrial use and from degradation by atmospheric fallout, toxic industrial effluents, agricultural run-off and waste water from cities…
Protected areas: Defined by the federal government as areas where development is restricted by legal or other means for purposes of conservation of natural features or ecosystems, Canada's protected lands have nearly doubled since 1990…
Toxic releases: According to Environment Canada's figures, house-hold use of the herbicides, pesticides and lawn fertilizers whose residues washed into storm drains and thence into waterways, fell by about 25 per cent between 2005 and 2007, with Quebec and B.C. leading the way.
But Hume also points out the one factor which has made all of this possible,
You: None of these achievements occurred because of altruism on the part of corporations or governments. They occurred because of activist citizens and educators, non-governmental environmental organizations and individuals who decided to do some-thing, whether politically or socially.
Two-thirds of Canadians feel their federal government isn't paying enough attention to environmental issues, according to a 2010 poll by Angus Reid.
They cite four issues as their biggest environmental concerns: the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs (80 per cent); contamination of soil and water by toxic waste (76 per cent); pollution of drinking water (72 per cent); and air pollution (70 per cent).
So much for saving the planet. A recent survey reveals that over the past few years, Americans have become less likely to say they care a great deal about the current and future state of the environment. Similarly, we’re also less likely today to purchase all-natural or organic products, bother trying to use less water, and reuse things we already own—not when we can buy new stuff and toss the old items in the trash.
It seems the work is far from over, and Earth Day this year may be as much about activist citizens pushing for more stringent regulation and corporate social responsibility as it is about celebrating our successes.