Reflections on Earth Day

In many respects we’ve seen huge progress. In others it appears the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I was a senior in high school at the time of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970). What I remember from that day is showing up early on a chilly Saturday morning for a cleanup of the Lake Michigan beach in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where I lived.

Only three of us turned out: the organizer, one other dedicated soul, and me. We left disheartened by the apathy of our classmates and community. We really shouldn’t have been so gloomy. Earth Day and the movement it began led to incredible and rapid progress toward clean air and water.

To illustrate: Back then, PCBs were just becoming recognized as a serious pollutant of Lake Michigan; today, they’re barely mentioned in talk about the lake’s health. And I don’t have to enumerate for TPO readers all the progress in treating wastewater. That progress continues today, 46 years later, as we wrestle with nitrogen and phosphorus, and debate what to do about climate change.

Familiar patterns

Still, as our society contemplates next steps, some common scenarios play out. Ever since the first Earth Day, it seems, we’ve had environmental advocates on one side forecasting all manner of death and doom if regulations weren’t enacted, and business groups on the other side claiming there really was no problem and that such regulations would bankrupt companies, kill jobs and destroy the economy.

We saw it with issues like acid rain, the ozone hole and the releases of toxic chemicals to air and water. In the face of it all, laws got passed, cleanups proceeded, businesses thrived. Now we see it all again with carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change.

Of course, climate change is a tougher issue. It’s easy to argue for clean water when dead fish are washing up on shores and Lake Erie is a sewer. It’s easy to argue for clean air when you can see clouds belching from smokestacks and soot collecting on the snow.

It’s much harder to argue for reducing CO2 emissions when climate change happens slowly and with few easily visible indicators, and when forecasts of its pace and impacts are based on mathematical models so arcane that few people understand them other than the scientists who use them.

I’d rather not believe in climate change, but — as one who believes in and trusts science — I don’t see that I have much choice. The data does seem to come down quite hard on the side of climate change as something that’s happening and that people are helping to cause.

Being positive

Fortunately, I’m more optimistic now than in my younger and more cynical days. I’ve observed the old pattern of debate on environmental issues. Almost every time the advocates for the planet have won, business and the economy have churned along, and life has improved.

I believe that will happen again this time. In fact, this time many big businesses are well ahead of the curve, taking big steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, doing far more, proportionally, than individual households are doing, and much more than the government requires. It’s mainly a few industries and a recalcitrant group of politicians who are diligently denying the problem and fighting progress.

We saw a global agreement on climate change approved in Paris about four months ago. It remains to be seen how well the many parties stick to their commitments and whether those commitments go far enough, but clearly the trend is toward more energy conservation and cleaner energy sources. That momentum, once built, is likely only to increase.

Cleaner sources

As for clean energy, you can mark me down as a believer in nuclear power. I believe those who say it has potential to produce emission-free energy on a large scale, and do so safely at a reasonable cost. Maybe I’m so confident because I grew up within 20 miles of two nuclear plants on Lake Michigan and never did see a downside to them.

You can also mark me down as a big supporter of clean-water plants’ efforts to boost their energy efficiency and recover energy through generation and use of biogas. It’s great to see this industry appreciate its role in a renewable energy economy and to see so many talented people working to capture the energy potential of the wastewater they treat.

So I look to the next Earth Day appreciating the size and difficulty of the challenges ahead, but with a lot more faith in a good outcome than I had 40-some years ago. As hard, as seemingly risky and expensive as many of the changes have been, it seems that as a human race we’ve always done the right thing on the environment’s behalf.

For the sake of my children, Sonya and Todd, and of grandsons Tucker and Perrin and such others as may come, I hope we continue to do so. More to the point, I believe we will.


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