We appear to have reached the end of a 50-year era of environmental awareness, a time that had its coming of age on Earth Day 1970, and that spawned the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts, as well as the EPA, which is now itself on the endangered list. It was a bipartisan movement that arose out of concerns about pollution, threats to clean water and public health, and even the rapid disappearance of wilderness.
It demanded a true accounting of the price of progress – not just the national balance sheet of GDP, which measured economic data only, but the hidden costs that didn’t show up on corporate balance sheets but were paid by the rest of us: pollution abatement; the free use of public goods for private profits; a decline in the quality of life. It was also a time that recognized that the most helpless victims of environmental degradation were the poor whose communities had become the dumping grounds for our toxic wastes.
Politicians talked about protections rather than regulations (it was not, after all, the Environmental Regulation Agency), about stewardship rather than ownership, about sustainable growth.
Looking back, it seems an extraordinary effort to redefine mankind’s place in the natural world by recognizing the interdependence of the entire ecosystem instead of isolating and exalting its most powerful component. It led to significant progress in both cleaning up the messes we had made and suggesting new ways of thinking about the good life.
It seems a long time ago.