April 22nd is “Earth Day,” the global celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.
History shows that Earth Day was not intended to be about personal actions – planting a tree or recycling one’s garbage, although both are good ideas. Instead, the original Earth Day was a reaction to the enormous environmental damage done by the essentially unregulated discharging of pollution into the nation’s airways and waterways.
At that time, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gasoline emitted from inefficient automobiles. Industries pumped out smoke and sludge and considered those wastes the price of progress. Chemical waste and garbage were dumped into waterways on a scale never seen, air pollution was at staggering levels. Much of the American public was largely oblivious to the fact that a polluted environment posed a substantial health risk.
Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment that galvanized public awareness of the growing threat of pollution and its impact on the nation’s environment and public health. A nationwide organizing effort hinged on college campuses. Students held teach-ins to focus public attention on growing environmental threats. April 22nd was chosen as the date, since it landed between college Spring breaks and academic finals.
Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities and towns. Millions of Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of decades of industrial development and the resulting legacy of serious human health problems.
Those actions, as well as the work of community groups all across the nation, resulted in monumental improvements including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act.
Today, we are all facing threats that equal – if not exceed – those of the 1960s. Like that time, Americans need to get involved without becoming cynical or depressed about the possibilities for improving the world. Closer to home, actions in New York can set the tone for the nation – and the world.
New York State’s population, while only the fourth largest in the nation, has an outsized impact since it is the 11th largest economy in the world. What New York does not only impacts its own residents, it can also influence the nation, and the world.
As we celebrate the 53rd Earth Day anniversary, here are five things New Yorkers can do to improve the environment and reduce health risks.
One. Make New York the leader on the shift to renewable energy – such as solar, wind, and geothermal. In the weeks ahead, state lawmakers will consider a proposal to require that all new buildings rely on electricity, not oil and gas, for power and heat. An increasingly green electric grid will drive down greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists have urged, now is the time to act to address the climate crisis.
Two. New Yorkers will foot the bill for tens of billions of dollars in expenses to deal with rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and increasing heat. It is time to make the biggest oil companies pay for their past greenhouse gas emissions which caused global warming– and do it in a way that prohibits them from passing those costs onto the public. Legislation is under consideration right now that would do just that.
Three. Require packaging manufacturers to reduce and detoxify its packaging wastes and to expand the state’s highly successful bottle deposit law so that more beverage containers are collected and recycled.
Four. The EPA recently released guidance on “safe” levels for PFAS chemicals in drinking water supplies. But the Department of Health is still considering allowing PFAS levels that are higher than the EPA guidance. The state’s responsibility is to protect the public from these “forever” chemicals; it must follow the science to develop safe standards.
Five. Deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. If it continues at its current pace, the entirety of the world’s tropical rainforests could be degraded or destroyed in the next 100 years. Deforestation contributes to global warming, can violate the land rights of indigenous peoples, and results in the loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species. New York should ban state government purchases of these wood products.
If Governor Hochul and state lawmakers embraced these five steps, it would go a long way to showing the world a clear path forward to a brighter and safer future. Policy action is what Earth Day is all about. Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work. Happy Earth Day.