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Planet greener, still troubled on 30th Earth Day anniversary


In this story:

1970: a grassroots explosion

'Hitting the Earth twice as hard'

Just another green holiday?

Montreal, Rio and Kyoto

Battle of Seattle and beyond


April 14, 2000
Web posted at: 5:03 p.m. EDT (2103 GMT)

(CNN) -- Industrial waste did more than fuel a fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1969. It ignited the modern environmental movement. No longer willing to accept pollution as the inevitable price of prosperity, 20 million people took to streets across the United States for the first Earth Day a year later.

Most environmentalists agree the green movement is in better shape than it was 30 years ago. There are stronger laws and better technologies, and environmental awareness has increased. But the growth of such threats as overpopulation, species reduction, and global warming overshadows those gains.

Despite the bleak outlook, many environmentalists find reason for hope as Earth Day teaches maturity. The green movement changed the West in 30 years. Maybe it can do the same for the world.

1970: a grassroots explosion

Sen. Gaylord Nelson  

For much of the 20th century, people accepted pollution as the inevitable price of progress. But in the '60s, U.S. environmental awareness picked up, spurred in part by the publication of Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring," which exposed the devastating toll of DDT on bird populations. Another jolt came with the unlikely blaze in 1969 on the Cuyahoga River, which turned Cleveland into a target of national ridicule.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, troubled that few U.S. leaders were paying attention to public concern about the environment, announced a series of teach-ins across the country on April 22, 1970. Twenty million people participated.

"It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion," Nelson said in a statement. "The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy."


It worked. President Richard Nixon, bowing to political pressure, signed a series of unprecedented laws creating the Environmental Protection Agency, establishing national limits for air and water pollutants, and requiring environmental impact assessments before federally funded projects can begin.

Since then, a new generation of activist organizations, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have come into being.

"There really wasn't an environmental movement 30 years ago," said Denis Hayes, the coordinator for Earth Day celebrations in 1970, 1990 and 2000. "The Sierra Club national office in 1969 consisted of one full-time volunteer."

Back then, a few activists worked on traditional green issues like conservation, the protection of wilderness and animals. But none tackled urban ones, like industrial pollution.

"There was almost a universal acceptance of unhealthy conditions. Sulfur dioxide in smokestack emissions were the price, or smell, of prosperity," said Hayes, who also directs the Bullitt Foundation, which funds environmental organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

High-tech improvements in industrial nations have accompanied the heightened awareness. More efficient autos produce a fraction of the emissions their counterparts did three decades ago. Use of alternative energy sources like solar and wind power has grown exponentially while use of potentially dangerous ones like nuclear power have declined. Smokestack scrubbers catch pollutants before they go into the air.

'Hitting the Earth twice as hard'

A busy street in Cairo. Environmentalists say a booming global population over the past 30 years has accelerated environmental deterioration  

Yet a burgeoning number of environmental problems have cropped up or worsened since 1970, making environmentalists more concerned than ever.

"We've made some heroic efforts, but the Earth as a whole is in worse shape today than 30 years ago," Hayes said. "There's been 30 more years of greenhouses gases, species extinctions and population growth."

The rate at which humans are destroying the environment has risen, rather than declined, environmentalists agree. "We're hitting the Earth twice as hard as 30 years ago," estimates Donella Meadows, an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth University.

Hillary French, a senior researcher with the World Watch Institute, said global trends reveal a "significant deterioration" of the Earth's resources during the latter part of the 20th century.

Since 1950, she estimates, wood consumption has increased twofold, paper use sixfold, fish consumption fivefold, water and grain consumption threefold, and fossil fuel burning fourfold. Additionally, the planet population has more than doubled from 2.5 billion to 6 billion.

Just another green holiday?

solar plant
Solar power could lead a clean energy revolution that makes fossil fuels extinct  

Except for a strong resurgence on the 20th anniversary in 1990, Earth Day has for the most part failed to muster the enthusiasm and numbers of 1970. Some environmentalists question whether this year's event will be effective.

"The first one was much nicer. It was spontaneous and unorganized. It went beyond what anyone in charge wanted," Dartmouth's Meadows said.

Jim Flynn, an activist with EarthFirst!, predicted the event's impact will be short-lived.

"People think of it like St. Patrick's Day, where they're Irish for a day. People need to make environmental action a standard practice," he said.

Hayes acknowledges their point. "When we held the first Earth Day, everyone said it was a success because of the huge turnout. It was probably the largest planned event across the country."

The following day, the Earth Day organizers placed an advertisement in the New York Times calling the event a failure. "We got everyone's attention, but we didn't solve any environmental problems," Hayes said.

But Earth Day can serve as a catalyst. In 1970 it spurred the adoption of strong national environmental laws. Hayes wants the 2000 event to jumpstart international action on clean energy. He cites a U.N. panel of international scientists that has issued increasingly dire reports about the role of fossil fuel burning in rising world temperatures.

"These are not exhortations from overwrought extremists, but carefully phrased warnings from some of the world's finest scientists," he writes in a World Watch article.

Montreal, Rio and Kyoto

Fossil fuel burning worldwide has increased fourfold since 1950, according to researchers  

Hayes and others seek to expand the environmental movement across all borders. Many cite the Montreal Protocol of 1987 as a breakthrough in international cooperation. Faced with evidence that chlorofluorocarbons eat the ozone layer over the polar regions, dozens of nations agreed to phase out CFC production.

But international environmental conferences since then have produced mixed results. World leaders met in Brazil in 1992 for the Earth Summit, which produced treaties calling for the protection of biodiversity. Delegates at the Rio conference included real chiefs dressed in feathers and skins, who dramatized the plight of indigenous cultures.

In Japan in 1997, more than 100 countries agreed to set limits on gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Negotiators from Washington helped draft the Kyoto treaty, but the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify it.

Meanwhile, the United States produces more than 20 percent of all greenhouse gases. Between 1990 and 2000, U.S. carbon dioxide emission rose 12 percent. That increase alone is more than the total amount produced this year by France and England combined, according to Hayes in his "Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair."

Battle of Seattle and beyond

Thousands of green activists joined the protests against the WTO in Seattle in November 1999, in opposition to the organization's power to veto individual countries' environmental laws  

Still, world conferences can galvanize environmental concern, even without intending to do so. The World Trade Organization meeting served as an international lightning rod last year, drawing tens of thousands of activists from around the world to Seattle.

They protested the WTO's de facto ability to veto environmental laws that it deems trade barriers. In recent years, the WTO voided regulations protecting endangered sea turtles off the U.S. coast and a European ban on the sale of hormone-laden beef.

The United States and Europe now are gearing up for a battle over genetically modified crops, which promises to become one of the most pressing environmental topics of the 21st century.

Already, independent farms are fighting multinational companies that want to market so-called terminator seeds, which critics say could render some natural plants sterile.

Former Sen. Nelson has championed the environment since the early 1960s when as the Wisconsin governor he instituted a penny-a-pack cigarette tax to purchase green space. Now a counselor with the Wilderness Society, he looks ahead with patience and cautious optimism.

"It took us 30 years to get to where we are now. It will take us 30 years to get to a point where the world approaches sustainability."

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Earth Day arrives: with a report card
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