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Earth Day Fifty Years Ago — Where Are We Now?

On April 22, 1970 I was a second-year graduate student at Rutgers University studying the effects of air pollution on vegetation. My mentor, Eileen Brennan, stood next to me at the window observing the students massing on the lawn below our building. There was a smile of satisfaction on her face that reflected what was happening, and not just that day. This air pollution research pioneer was witnessing a societal awakening to what she as a scientist had known for some time. A bright light was shining on the problems humans were causing—with our uncontrolled emissions into the air and water, the outcome of unregulated use of synthetic pesticides, and so many other infractions. And in parallel to this “earth festival,” legislation was making its way through Congress for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year.

Fast forward fifty years. Where are we now? The pessimist will point to climate change and curl up into a ball. The truth is climate change is a terrifying threat in so many ways. Have we reached the tipping point? Perhaps. If we continue to pollute our water and air will one million species go extinct in the next few decades? That is certainly within the realm of the possible. There is a lot to find discouraging. But there is also some evidence that we humans are able to address the issues, and care for our beautiful planet. Here are a couple of examples.

In the early 1970’s scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer, that zone of the stratosphere that provides a screen for the harmful UV rays of the sun as light penetrates to the earth’s surface. People were using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a propellant in everything from refrigeration to underarm deodorants. Skin cancers were going up and the future looked bleak, especially in the southern hemisphere. Scientists conducted compelling experiments that left no doubt that CFCs and other relatives were the culprits in breaching the earth’s protective shield. In 1987 an agreement called the Montreal Protocol was drafted. It prescribed the elimination of the chemicals responsible for this global threat. Today 197 nations, all the members of the United Nations, are signatories to that international agreement. All evidence points to a reversal of the damage to the ozone layer that so threatened our earth.

Scientists in the 1950’s had begun to describe acid rain. This phenomenon occurred when compounds like sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen washed out of the air as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels. It wasn’t until the 1970’s and 80’s that many of us began to focus on the implications of acid rain on plant life and fish in our forests, lakes and streams, particularly in the Northeastern United States. As soil pH dropped, toxic metals like aluminum became more available for uptake by plants. In streams and lakes, lowered pH had adverse effects on fish populations. Again, scientific research helped shine a light on the problem. Armed with an understanding of the problems and impacts, the Clean Air Act of 1990 provided for legislation to reduce emissions of these gases into our atmosphere. The pH took decades to decrease to a dangerous level, and now it is taking time for health to return to our forests and aquatic zones. But it is happening.

What are the take-aways here? First, we need to understand how proper science is done. Scientists collect and analyze data. They conduct controlled experiments. And their work is reviewed by peers. Comments we hear too often in the press today —“I believe in science?” or I don’t believe in science,” are just plain silly. It is not a matter of faith, it’s a matter of analysis. Informed citizens need to review information and understand how conclusions are derived.

Second, we need those with legislative authority to assess the scientific reports, and work with policy analysts on the implications of making necessary change to protect our environment. Let’s be clear. Even the two wins I have cited resulted in financial crises to people who had jobs associated with certain industries. No one should minimize that hardship was brought about to keep our environment safe. Sound policymakers must manage those adversities.

We must continue to take on the most challenging problems facing our home in the Universe. We need to invest in fully understanding problems, and then arm ourselves with the scientific, political and social tools to address them. And I believe we need to retain an optimistic outlook. Humans can be destructive, with blatant disregard for all that is precious. But we can also be inventive and determined. We must see to it that the next generation is educated with the tools they will need to confront the challenges of tomorrow.

Eva J. Pell isFormer Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution/Sr. VP for Research & Dean of the Graduate School, & Professor Plant Pathology Emeritus, Penn State University/ and author of children’s book focused on rescuing endangered species

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