Related topics

25 Years Later, Toughest Environmental Challenges Remain

April 20, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The environmental movement marks its 25th birthday celebrating ``tremendous progress″ but worried that past victories may have been relatively easy compared to the challenges ahead.

``The real question is what happens now?″ says Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day rallies in 1970.

Marking the silver anniversary of Earth Day on Saturday, environmental scholars applaud the progress over the last quarter-century.

The air is cleaner, the water clearer and industry is spewing out fewer toxic chemicals. The erosion of wetlands has been slowed and the American bald eagle, once thought to be nearly extinct, is making a comeback.

But environmentalists seem to have a hard time celebrating.

Recently writer Gregg Easterbrook took them to task in an article in The New Yorker. ``Few ideas are more deeply entrenched in our political culture than that of impending ecological doom,″ he began.

Despite a broad array of successes ``the vocabulary of environmentalism has continued to be dominated by images of futility, crisis and decline,″ continued Easterbrook, whose recent book on the environmental movement also exudes optimism.

``We’ve made tremendous progress ... and should take a moment to celebrate,″ Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed in an interview.

No longer does the Guyahoga River near Cleveland catch fire because of pollution, nor does a yellow haze descend on the nation’s industrial heartland. No longer do children in playgrounds routinely breathe lead from exhausts of passing automobiles. There is 40 percent less smog even though the number of cars has tripled. Industry has cut toxic wastes nearly in half and has recognized that controlling pollution can pay on the bottom line. With unusual ease, nations are phasing out chemicals that destroy the Earth’s protective ozone shield.

No longer would one seriously consider _ as they did in the 1960s _ a massive power plant that would pump thousands of gallons of water out of the Hudson River and up a mountainside, only to send it roaring back into river to generate power, destroying thousands of fish eggs, larvae and plant life along the way.

Nevertheless, says Browner, ``the environmental problems of today and challenges of tomorrow are in many ways more difficult to resolve. We’ve done the easy things.″

She ticks off some gloomy statistics:

_Two of every five Americans still live in areas where the air is too polluted to continually meet federal health standards.

_Forty percent of the nation’s waterways are still too dirty to fish or swim in.

_One in four people lives within four miles of a toxic waste dump.

It is easier to stop cities from dumping raw sewage in a lake than it is to overcome decades of widespread pesticide and fertilizer use and try to curb agricultural runoffs that are contaminating and destroying waterways, says Browner.

And it’s easier to control acid-producing chemicals from power plant smokestacks than to wean the world’s energy economy away from fossil fuels to curb carbon dioxide emissions and protect against global warming. Efforts to protect endangered species and wetlands increasingly are running up against angry landowners who argue they are being deprived of use of their property.

And the question of ``how clean is clean″ has been more frequently asked when faced with costly cleanup of toxic wastes and radioactive contamination left over from making nuclear weapons.

``That is a legitimate issue,″ says David Sive, who teaches environmental law at Pace University. ``If you want to clean a tiny bit more at great cost, perhaps it isn’t necessary to do so.″

The environmental movement also is now caught up in a general revolt against government regulations as Congress threatens to pass a string of regulatory reforms that critics argue will gut the very laws spawned by the original Earth Day.

This threatens ``a new polarization ... and a return to confrontation,″ says Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that has sought to expand the use of market forces and cooperative efforts with business to deal with environmental problems.

Today’s trickiest environmental challenges tend to be more global and frequently are plagued by scientific uncertainties.

``We have an extraordinary difficult time in weighing and balancing environmental risks,″ concedes Kathryn Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund. ``And we’re facing more than ever the need to take steps when we feel we’d like to know more.″

Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group, says there is no clearer example of the folly of inaction than the collapse of the world’s fisheries. The warning signs were there, but not heeded, he says.

And he says it might be only the first such economic upheaval. On the global environmental scale, says Brown, ``all the trends are headed in the wrong direction and we’ve not succeeded in turning any of them around.″

``Tree-cover forests are shrinking and deserts are expanding, topsoil continues to erode, the number of paints and animals species are diminishing, the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to rise and we’re still adding 90 million people a year,″ he says.

Update hourly