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Earth Month Turns 50: How Much Has Changed?

You're right if you think the news is grim overall, but along the way, there have been significant wins for the planet.

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A banner at the inaugural Earth Day depicting the earth calling out for help, New York City, 22nd April 1970.Archive Photos/Getty Images

Back to the beginning

The first Earth Day was held on April 22 of 1970, ushered in by a wave of increasing social consciousness about the state of our planet’s ill health, much of it brought about by the publication of Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book Silent Spring in 1962. The formal idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” came on the heels of a 1969 California oil spill and was proposed by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who built a team that promoted the first-ever event 50 years ago. Some 20 million Americans turned out to protest on that pivotal day, according to the Earth Day Network; a concurrent Earth Month was orchestrated that same year by a citizen-based non-profit And so the seeds of an important movement were born and continue to this day. What’s changed since then? Let’s have a look.

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CloudmakerBluberries/Getty Images

Establishing the EPA

Eight months after the first Earth Day, and “in the wake of elevated concern about environmental pollution,” according to its website, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by President Richard Nixon on December 2, 1970. Tasked with protecting human and environmental health, and with creating standards and laws to support that health, the agency has been responsible for massive gains, among them: a 67 percent drop in concentrations of common air pollutants, the abolishment of leaded gasoline, the banning of DDT use on crops; and classifying secondhand smoke as a carcinogen, according to the NRDC—which points out that many of these successes are being challenged by the current Trump administration. Find out the most—and least—polluted cities in the world.

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Blue sky and white clouds over the citybjdlzx/Getty Images

The Clean Air Act

Also in 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in response to a major urban smog crisis and gave the EPA the power to take necessary steps to prevent air pollution. It set levels of emissions that could be spewed out by various facilities, regulated pollutants, sought to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in order to control acid rain, and banned the use of chemicals that contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer. Encyclopedia Brittanica reports that a 63 percent drop in the emission of six major pollutants was achieved between 1980 and 2015—but again, these gains are currently being threatened by attempts to find loopholes that would allow the industry to increase dangerous emissions, says the Environmental Defense Fund. See what the most populated cities used to look like.

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Blue deep sea foaming water backgroundMax2611/Getty Images

The Clean Water Act

Once upon a time, lakes, rivers, streams, and coasts were so polluted they frequently caught fire and ran with human sewage; needless to say, they were too dirty for swimming or fishing. The passage in 1972 of the Clean Water Act began to change all that; discharge of untreated wastewater was banned, and businesses were required to apply for permits to discharge pollutants, reports Inc., as well as to gradually reduce their incidence; updates to the legislation started to protect wetlands, recognizing their vital role in filtering water. One incredible result: 700 billion pounds of toxins are kept from American waterways every year, says NRDC. But we’re not out of the woods, and many waterways are ailing. Find out what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like.

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Recycle concept Separate Plastic Garbage waste collection bottles and containersLisovskaya/Getty Images

Plastic, plastic everywhere

Single-use plastic has come to dominate our lives; about 150 million tons of it is produced every year, 8 million tons of which find their way into our oceans, according to the American Museum of Natural History. It entangles marine life; fills the bellies of species on land and in water; swirls in unfathomable, traveling vortexes called Garbage Patches; and is increasingly being found in human bodies, reports the Guardian. And we’re burning more plastic than we’re recycling, which pollutes the air we breathe. On the plus side, studies show that banning plastic bags, for example, and mandating beverage container deposits, are successful in decreasing plastic pollution—and some companies are getting rid of plastic altogether.

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circle water wavesPineapple Studio/Getty Images

Cleaning up our drinking water

The year 1974 brought the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, signed into law by President Gerald Ford. On the plus side, it protected the water we drink out of the taps in our homes from both natural and man-made harmful contaminants. Slate reported in 2014 that “America enjoys among the safest and most reliable drinking water in the world, [with] more than 90 percent of water customers enjoy[ing] drinking water that meets all standards all the time.” The downside: According to research published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, monitoring is up to individual states and “[u]p to half of the U.S. population drinks unregulated water from small systems that have fallen through the cracks of the regulatory protections.” Which is how we got to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Newark, New Jersey, and Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, not all bottled water is safe, either.

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manatee sea cow33karen33/Getty Images

Protecting endangered species

We’ve passed a slew of legislation to protect animals of all kinds, on land and in the sea: 1972’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, which protected whales, dolphins, manatees, and seals from hunting and harassment; 1973’s Endangered Species Act, to protect animals (and plants) from extinction, in part by working to protect their habitats; and 1975’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to halt poaching. These efforts have seen amazing successes, bolstering all manner of species populations. Nevertheless, the rate of species extinction is accelerating, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported, with 1 million species currently under threat for extinction. In fact, these 14 beautiful animals could go extinct in your lifetime.

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Alaska Landscape1001Love/Getty Images

Preserving natural spaces

America is rich in pristine natural spaces—our National Parks system, for example, comprises 84 million acres, which are visited by 318 million people every year, and it’s a model for other countries around the world. Some protections we’ve afforded to our land have come since the first Earth Day; the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980, and preserved 100 million acres in our most northwesterly state, reports National Geographic. But the federal government has cut funding for NPS, and in 2017, Congress voted to make it harder to protect land as national monuments. And this is only the tip of the problem. The United States has lost 24 million acres of natural land between 2011 and 2017, to agriculture and various forms of development, reports Reuters. A quick look at these stunning photos of America’s national parks proves how worthy they are of preserving.

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Underwater World - XLargePhotoTalk/Getty Images

Oceans take a hit

According to the American Museum of Natural History, we’ve emitted 1.2 trillion tons of greenhouse gases since 1970, 93 percent of the excess of which has been absorbed by our oceans. That’s led to a rise in water temperature of 1 degree Fahrenheit—partially responsible for a 50 percent loss in global coral and the 90 percent overfishing of fish stocks—as well as a 13.3 percent loss of ice every decade, and a sea-level rise of 14.4 centimeters. Yes, it’s serious, especially since our oceans help to regulate warming temperatures and when they suffer, we suffer. Nevertheless, concern from countries around the world has led to the creation of 2.5 square kilometers of marine protected areas. Find out what warmer oceans mean for our planet.

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Stuffed Recycling Binsdominick/Getty Images

The advent of recycling

After the lean, conserve-at-all-cost eras of the World Wars and before 1970, America didn’t do much in the way of recycling the single-use containers that came with the foods and other products we purchased. But recycling has been gaining traction ever since, with a significant boon coming in 1990, according to the Earth Day Network. However, even though many communities have provided opportunities to put glass, plastic, paper, cardboard, and some metals out to the curb, efforts have struggled, sometimes due to a lack of funding in some municipalities and, most recently, because of China and India’s refusal to take our “dirty” (mixed-up) recyclables. It means the United States is having to innovate in order to deal with its own garbage. But one of the best strategies, experts agree, is simply to buy less. Learn 10 things other countries recycle but the United States doesn’t.

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Chat Bubble Made of Recycled Paper On Green BackgroundMicroStockHub/Getty Images

Eco-consciousness goes mainstream

Yes, the federal government stepped in over the years to pass laws to improve our air, water, and land. But according to the University of Buffalo environmental historian Adam Rome, a whole new environmental awareness was born after the first Earth Day. In addition to the creation of recycling programs in many communities, newspapers started to hire beat reporters to cover climate, universities established environmental studies programs, and the general public became a lot more savvy, and interested, in preserving the quality of life for humans and other species. Still, as powerful as these changes are, experts agree that they cannot ultimately be successful unless they lead to regulatory changes and enforcement. Find out 13 ways other countries are replacing plastic.

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Taking care of the Crop. Aerial view of a Tractor fertilizing a cultivated agricultural field.Daniel Balakov/Getty Images

A problematic food system

Farming has largely been consolidated in the 50 years since the beginning of Earth Day. Back then, found the USDA, 4 percent of our population was employed by the agricultural sector; in 2000, it was 1.9 percent, and that number is lower today. Fewer family farmers can make money solely from farming; in 1970, 54 percent of farm family households worked off-farm while in 2000, it was 93 percent. And as Time reports, family farms today are almost extinct. That’s paved the way for large-scale ag to become the norm, with devastating results: confined animal feedlots that house hundreds of thousands of cattle or hogs pollute soil and water; commodity corn and soy growing monocultures rely on toxic chemicals and deplete nutrients from the soil. At the same time, movements toward regenerative systems are becoming better known and supported by consumers. Follow these tips to reduce the amount of food waste you create in your own home.

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Colorful aerial view of suburbs of Melbourne, Australiagumboot/Getty Images

What comes from a doubled population

As The World Bank reports, the earth has seen a doubling of our human population since 1970; in 50 years, we’ve gone from 3.7 billion people to 7.6 billion. It should come as no surprise to learn that this growth has put an enormous strain on our resources, and on our planet’s health, because we’ve also started using more resources per person in that time: burning 37 percent more fossil fuel, eating 60 percent more meat, and traveling by plane 425 percent more. All this adds up to a whopping 1.2 trillion tons of CO2 emissions between 2013 and 2018, at a time when we need to be seriously scaling those numbers back in order to reach global greenhouse gas emissions that are 45 percent lower than what they were in 2010 by 2030, and getting to net zero by 2050 in order to limit the impacts of climate change. At the start of 2020, we’re not even close. Here’s exactly what it would take for the United States to get to carbon neutral by 2050.

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Group of people around the worldProfessor25/Getty Images

Earth Day and Month go International

Back in 1970, fully 10 percent of U.S. citizens turned out in support of Earth Day, and rallies were organized coast to coast by colleges and universities and a whole range of environmental groups that until that time had been working largely in isolation from each other, according to the Earth Day Network. But in 1990, the day went global, and 200 million people in 141 countries participated. In 2020, those numbers have risen again, and Earth Day and Month are celebrated in over 190 countries. This year, the Earth Day Network seeks to get 1 billion people out and marching, as well as committing to individual efforts to make a difference. You can start today with these 25 simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.

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