As we pause to celebrate Earth Day this month, we need to reflect on the progress made since Rachel Carson's call to action in 1969 and the first Earth Day in 1970:
- Most of our severe hazardous waste sites have been cleaned up or are in the process of being improved.
- Water quality has vastly improved. Even Lake Erie, fed by the Cuyahoga River that famously caught fire in 1969, has come back to life.
- Air quality in most U.S. cities has significantly improved as a direct result of the Air Pollution Control Act.
- Significant reductions in refractory and toxic pesticide use has led to the return of sensitive and endangered species as a result of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Potable water quality in the United States has substantially improved since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Industry has to a large degree embraced the concepts of industrial ecology, byproduct synergy and waste minimization.
But even with this progress, immense challenges remain to be addressed and solved. These may be more daunting than those we faced in the past.
Carson sounded the first alarm in Silent Spring but we know today that humankind cannot survive unless we are both in tune and aligned with nature. We need to respect and listen to the direction provided by nature. Our natural systems sustain us and we cannot exist without respecting and supporting these systems.
So what are the looming challenges? Here are some of the most significant:
Endocrine disrupters are found in almost 25 percent of our streams, rivers and lakes. Environmental Protection Agency scientists have identified more than 100 complex molecules used in medicines and personal care products that have turned up in environmental samples and drinking water. The risk posed by these pharmaceuticals to humans and environmental systems is being researched. It is clear, however, that ibuprofen and estradiol are not being effectively treated by conventional wastewater treatment facilities.
Environmental vectors are identified as the cause for the dramatic increase in childhood diseases globally over the last 50 years. Consider: Child asthma rates have nearly tripled over the past three decades, developmental disorders now affect at least 10 percent of the babies born in the United States each year and Type II diabetes is becoming epidemic among children. In addition, childhood leukemia and brain cancer have increased since 1970. At the same time, since World War II, more than 80,000 new synthetic chemicals have been developed and are used in a vast array of consumer products; children are uniquely vulnerable. In 2008 alone, our country spent $76.6 billion to treat children's diseases of environmental origin.
Climate change might be the largest single environmental threat. The 2013 Draft National Climate Assessment Report released in January paints a worrisome picture. But let's start with the positive news: The United States has been emitting less carbon dioxide per unit of GDP, but the amount is still too high at still 16.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita per year. It's also good news that our forests sequester 13 percent of U.S. emissions. And even without a national greenhouse gas policy, California has moved forward to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
In the United States, response is growing: 650 business signatories support the Carbon Disclosure Project and 1,055 municipalities from all 50 states support the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.
But the future looks bleak if we don't take action. By the end of this century, the world will have 250 million environmental refugees, increase in global temperatures from 2 degrees Celsius to 5 degrees Celsius, acidified oceans with loss of reefs and shellfish, coastal flooding as ocean levels are likely to rise by at least three feet, more severe storms as the climate changes, and more tropical diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, moving north.
Perhaps the best illustration of our need to act is our loss of global diversity. The United Nations Environmental Program in 2002 estimated that globally we lose 50,000 species a year, up to 1,000 times the natural rate. The World Wildlife Fund suggests that illegal wildlife trade is valued at $7.8 billion to $10 billion annually. On the flip side, Alan Weisman's intriguing book, The World Without Us, describes the DMZ that divides North and South Korea as one of the areas with the highest biodiversity in the world.
As we come to celebrate Earth Day and the planet that provides a home to our species, we should ask ourselves if we need barbed wire and mines to stop the degradation of the ecosystem that supports us.