On this Earth Day, like every Earth Day, you’ll hear an awful lot about what you ought to do in order to save a planet supposedly in peril, but precious little about what you have already done. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, along with the fortieth anniversary of the passage of the Clean Air Act and the thirty-eighth anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act in their modern forms. Congress passed other environmental legislation, before and after, but nothing really compares to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts when it comes to the scope of sweeping changes that these two environmental mandates have imposed on our lives and the unprecedented, almost unbelievable, record of achievement that these two Acts represent. Activists spend so much time instructing us to “go green” that the fact that we turned green forty years ago, and have done nothing but get greener ever since, is lost to all but the most astute observers.
Any dispassionate analysis of the record – and we’ll get to that in a bit – makes it clear that the United States has done a truly remarkable job of cleaning up the air, water and soil in this country. Every one of us has been a part of that and the money that we have expended to make green happen, should anyone ever account for those costs, would boggle the mind. You pay for green every time you purchase a vehicle chock full of the latest and greatest emissions controls. You pay for green with every check you write to your local utility, for without your increased financial obligations the utility could not pay for all of the new pollution controls that they have had to install. You pay for green in every gallon of paint you buy, with every trip to the grocery store and every time you crack a water faucet, for all of these acts, and hundreds more, factor in the cost of going as green as we have chosen to go. Yet, in spite of all you have done simply by tacitly accepting the need to “save the planet” and quietly paying whatever price was demanded, it’s not nearly enough for the environmental movement. On this Earth Day, like every Earth Day, they’ll metaphorically their wag their fingers and tell you that you need to do more. What organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council never do on Earth Day, because it would constitute financial suicide if they did, is to extend a hand and say “thank you” in recognition of all that you have accomplished.
Just what have you accomplished? In less than half a century you have funded a series of initiatives that has proven to, should someone actually dare to employ any objective means of measurement, forever shattered the image of America as the world’s cesspool. When the Clean Water Act was passed, lakes were declared “dead” and rivers were burning. Thirty eight years later, such images have disappeared in popular culture. Public and private sewage treatment plants are subject to such stringent standards and tight oversight that regulatory agencies have increasingly been forced to turn their attentions to stormwater run-off in order to find a purpose. Before the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed in 1980, unlicensed landfills and “midnight dumping” created scores of toxics hot spots each year. Today, such occurrences are so rare that a generation of attorneys who made their livings negotiating CERCLA settlements are desperately looking for something else to do. But nowhere has the green progress we have made been so evident, if so roundly ignored, than in terms of air pollution.
In 1970 Congress identified six air pollutants, the so-called “big six,” that represented the biggest threat to human health and the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency was charged with the task of reducing emissions of these air pollutants. In turn, USEPA developed comprehensive programs that you and I ultimately paid for, not just in terms of tax dollars, but in the costs of the goods and services we use every day. The results have been stunning. Though we use about double the amount of energy today as compared to 1970, while driving our cars and using our electronic gadgets, the amount of air pollution – in terms of the big six – has been cut in half as compared to 1970. Way to go America. Thanks are most definitely in order, but don’t hold your breath waiting for Greenpeace to express its gratitude.
The core reason that global warming is an issue at all in 2010 is directly connected to all of the progress we have made since 1970. Environmental groups are big businesses and the product that they sell is fear. The more successful the Clean Air Act was, the harder it became for groups like the Sierra Club to sell the apocalyptic scenarios necessary to keep donations rolling in. Thus a once obscure theory, ultimately disowned by its originator – that an inert, relatively weak greenhouse gas would result in catastrophic climate change – resonated among the environmental groups. This “issue,” such as it was, was so big that it would guarantee that donations would continue to roll in for years to come.
Many conservatives view greenhouse gas initiatives as another manifestation of leftist, statist control fantasies. Ultimately, that’s the effect, but I don’t think that reflects the origin of this particular liberal love affair. A few scientists had a theory and some leftists and environmentalists (same thing) realized that supporting and funding “research” about that particular theory would help them advance their agenda in all sorts of interesting new ways. In my view, global warming hysteria has been a matter of opportunism, not careful planning.
But then global warming hysteria is just the latest variation on a tired theme: that human beings are a pox on the planet. The environment of the United States need some work in 1970. Forty years later, we’re in pretty good shape and the fact that we can say so is almost entirely because to you. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council and all the rest can’t bring themselves to say it, but allow me to offer my gratitude. You’ve done a good job America. Don’t let anyone tell you that you haven’t.