As I reflect on 2010, I am aware that December 2, 2010, was the 40th birthday of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The turn of the year is a time of reflection as is the fortieth birthday of an organization. In spite of the challenging economy of the last few years, the rising attention to the environment and the business response has been astounding. The term “LOHAS” (Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability), describes a group of consumers attracted to a marketplace for goods and services focused on health, the environment, social justice, personal development and sustainable living. An estimate of this market in 2008 was $290 billion and growing. This year, the total volume of LEED certified buildings exceeded one billion square feet globally. People are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges before us and are clearly voting with their wallets.
Given this, the New Year seems a good time to celebrate the 40th birthday of the EPA and to reflect on its creation, accomplishments and future goals.
In the 1960’s the cumulative effects of our false presumption that our environment was limitless and self-cleaning; that we could dump our waste into our air, water and land and that it would “flush” itself, were brought sharply to our attention.
In 1962 Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring”, documenting the effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly birds. Becoming a best-seller, this book raised public concern about pollution in our environment and its effects on animals and man. DDT sprayed into the air and on plants to kill mosquitoes and other insects, poisoned the food supply for birds and other creatures. The question was, “Could it poison us?”
In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, and not for the first time. Filled with sludge and debris, river fires in the Cuyahoga had become a regular occurrence beginning in 1868. A river fire in 1952 caused over 1.5 million dollars in damage. The 1969 fire caused Congress to pass the Clean Water Act and inspired the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In April of 1970 the first Earth Day was held. Originally focusing on the United States, Earth Day is now celebrated in over 175 countries every year.
On December 2, of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded. One of its first acts was to ban DDT, the chemical pesticide that was the subject of Rachel Carson’s book in 1962. Growing public concern about the state of the environment, reinforced by the first Earth Day celebration in April 1970, led President Richard M. Nixon to call on Congress to reorganize the federal government’s approach to the environment by “pulling together into one agency a variety of research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities now scattered through several departments and agencies.”
In his special message to Congress which he transmitted in July 1970, Nixon wrote, “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food…. Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system.”
10 of EPA’s Accomplishments
The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization, recently published a report [pdf] that details 10 ways the EPA has strengthened America over the past 40 years. Those accomplishments include:
- Banning the widespread use of DDT
- Removing the acid from acid rain
- Rethinking waste as materials (drawing energy from waste streams and reusing materials to get more value from them before their final disposal)
- Removing lead from gasoline–and from the air
- Clearing secondhand smoke (by classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer in humans, and banning smoking in indoor public spaces
- Increasing vehicle efficiency and controlling emissions
- Working for environmental justice and a cleaner environment for all Americans
- Controlling toxic substances
- Achieving cleaner water
- Enforcing community right-to-know laws and improving public information about the chemicals and/or pollutants to which Americans may be exposed in their daily lives
Today, the EPA continues in its mission to protect our environment.
Seven Priorities for EPA’s Future
In the next 40 years and beyond, EPA commits to making strides in those issues that most affect the environment and communities we live in:
- Taking action on climate change
- Improving air quality
- Assuring the safety of chemicals
- Cleaning up our communities
- Protecting America’s waters
- Expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice
- Building strong state and tribal partnerships
It is interesting to point out that the environment has never been the partisan issue it seems to have become. Strong leadership for environmental protection from both parties is evident in past legislation. Under Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, and a Democratic Congress, the United States government created the National Parks system. Again, under a Republican President, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. As someone once said, “Conservation is conservative,” and that is a conservative notion that, I’m confident, liberals can live with.
Challenges to our environment must continue to be addressed on a bipartisan basis. The challenges before us and the potential costs or benefits to our communities will not recognize State or national borders or political party. The EPA’s agenda for the future targets those challenges that have the broadest affect on our communities. The stated priorities of the EPA are built around their mission to protect human health and the environment for all Americans. We now understand that protecting the environment and protecting our health are one and the same. For those who would suggest that “It costs too much” or “It will cost American jobs,” it is clear that all that we have comes, in one way or another, from the Earth. There is no economy without the environment. Let’s keep it healthy for our jobs, ourselves and our children.
Happy Birthday EPA and keep up the good work!