Today is Earth Day. It is in fact the 45th celebration of Earth Day, to be exact. So as Earth Day enters middle-age, let’s look back at how the environmental movement came to be and what we’ve learned since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
Photography from Space Gives Us New Perspective
If you’re one of today’s digital natives that takes Google Earth on your iPhone for granted, you probably can’t appreciate the impact of the first photographs of Earth taken from space. The iconic photo titled Earthrise taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 has been described as the most influential environmental photograph ever taken. In just four short years after Earthrise, the first Landsat satellite was launched into space. The sudden availability of detailed high-resolution satellite imagery revolutionized many disciplines, including geography and map-making, forestry and agricultural management, urban planning, geology and resource management.
It also fundamentally changed our view of how beautiful yet vulnerable our planet is. Over the past 45 years since the first Earth Day, satellite imagery has become increasingly sophisticated; the European Space Agency’s new CryoSat satellite can measure ice thickness from space, documenting the loss of ice in the Antarctic. Information is power they say, but are we powerless to react in the face of this information?
Disappeared Song Birds in the Silent Spring
While perspectives from space gave us new insight into our small blue planet, there are already signs on the ground that something was not right with our environment. In the late 1950s, Rachel Carson began studying the use of synthetic pesticides, including DDT, which had been developed during World War II. Her best-selling environmental science book, Silent Spring, published in late 1962 documented how widespread indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides was killing birds and entering our food chain. As pesticides like DDT and industrial chemicals like PCBs moved further up the food chain, the American public began to realize that iconic species like the American Bald Eagle and Brown Pelicans were in danger of extinction. Other environmental catastrophes, including the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River fire, became causes célèbre in the new environmental movement. By 1970, Congress and the Nixon administration had instituted the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water Act followed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
What have we learned about protecting the environment from chemical pollution since the first Earth Day? Unfortunately, we continue to discover ways that pollution continues to affect our environment in unexpected ways. For example, lifesaving pharmaceuticals that we take for our own health can pass through us — only to find their way into sewage treatment plants — with devastating downstream consequences. Chemicals such as endocrine disruptors appear to destabilize the reproduction of amphibians, which may lead to widespread waves of extinction.
Energy Disasters and the Environment
Unfortunately, the 1969 oil spill onto the beaches of Santa Barbara in California was not the last. Since the first Earth Day, we’ve experienced the heartbreak of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound, Alaska and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig at the BP Macondo site in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Marine biologists continue to monitor the long-term environmental impact of oil spills.
Diver and marine biologist Scott Porter had long been a fan of diving around oil rigs in the northern Gulf of Mexico. He has numerous beautiful underwater videos showing clear waters and bountiful colorful fish and coral. After the Macondo oil spill disaster, Porter has documented how this changed completely. In the video below he demonstrates how how shellfish in Bataria Bay in Louisiana have become contaminated with oil.
Risks of the Nuclear Option
And it’s not just oil and gas which have caused major environmental disasters since the first Earth Day in 1970. The 1970s saw the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The 1980s saw the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster near Kiev in the Urkraine.
And this decade we watched in horror as a devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan lead to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which saw three nuclear plants on the site meltdown. In the video above, Chief Engineer Arnie Gunderson from Fairewinds gives a detailed overview of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster. You can also watch a chilling Japanese documentary from Japan’s NHK television network investigating the multiple causes of this disaster.
Today’s Environmental Challenges are Global in Nature
The environmental movement has expanded since the first Earth Day in 1970 to become a worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, environmental problems have spread to the rest of the world as developing countries become more industrialized. And the introduction of new technologies such as fracking pose new potential risks to our water supply — not only here in the US but across the world. Widespread industrial growth in China has led to massive pollution problems.
During the Olympic Games in Beijing, Chinese government officials took the extraordinary step of shutting down all industrial plants prior to the games to clear the air for the international athletes, spectators and media. In a society with tight controls on individual expression, there are signs that environmental damage in China has reached the point where many individuals are speaking out. Chinese television reporter Chai Jing made international news with her devastating documentary Under the Dome on the state of pollution across China.
Climate Change: Tomorrow’s Challenge?
So what we learned from Earth Day over the last 45 years? Probably the enduring lesson is that everyone wants a pristine environment for themselves, but paying for it is another matter altogether. Protecting the environment can be costly. It’s also hard to know who to trust when getting information about the environment.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion about protecting our environment has devolved into hard-line political fights, particularly on the topic of Climate Change. And there have been ongoing concentrated campaigns to discredit scientists who are investigating the issues. Do you believe scientists? After all, sometimes they are wrong, that’s part of the scientific method. Bruce Wielicki of NASA sums this up in an interesting TED talk above.
What will Earth Day look like 45 Years from Now?
What about Earth Day 2060? Will we be celebrating 90 years of green, sustainable environmental progress? Or will we be hitting a big reset button on our planet, using Geo-engineering techniques like those proposed by Environmental scientist David Keith (video below) to control our atmosphere and global temperatures? Time will tell.
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