My take: Earth Day and today

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Good evening,

Today is Earth Day, and for some, it has become a curious artifact of the “hippy-dippy” era of the 1960s and ’70s.

Earth Day did have its roots in the counterculture and the antiwar movement of the 1960s. 

Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson believed the passion he witnessed in the antiwar movement could be used to address a nation struggling with polluted water and air.

Arizona and Wisconsin

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Wisconsin has a long history of environmental activism, born out of the loss of prairie, wetland, and forest. This legacy includes people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, who raised awareness back when it “wasn’t cool” and went on to become national figures.

For those of us growing up in the East and West, the problem was apparent. Smog from auto emissions hit dangerous levels, something we saw in China and, most recently, India, with coal as another contributor. 

In my home state of Arizona, tailpipe emissions were trapped in a basin around Phoenix, hiding desert vistas and leading to health consequences in an area where many had moved in seeking clean, dry air. In my hometown, a copper smelter on a bad day killed my mom’s roses and, at one point, produced “acid rain” that dulled vehicle paint. 

A river caught fire

Near Cleveland, Ohio, a river caught fire, making national news. It turned out it had happened a dozen times before. 

Delaware has toxic waste sites that rival the much-publicized Love Canal in upstate New York. Despite long-running progress along the Delaware River and other areas, waterways remain polluted.

Nelson enlisted the help of a young activist, and an environmental movement was born, with Earth Day becoming its centerpiece. Over the years, the environment became a top priority in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

One of Earth Day’s disciples was the late Russell Peterson, a DuPonter and Wisconsin native who became governor and waged a successful campaign to stop Shell from bringing a refinery to a quiet area along Delaware Bay.

It led to the creation of the Coastal Zone Act, which essentially stopped new heavy industrial development along the Delaware Bay and River.

The Coastal Zone Act

The regulations have been tweaked, but any project in the area faces hurdles, including some regs that make little sense as most chemical plants have left the state. 

The skies are much cleaner these days out west, and water quality has improved somewhat in Delaware, but the challenges that led to the first Earth Day are still with us.

Temperatures are rising and extreme weather is becoming more common in the U.S. and around the world. 

Solutions are complex, expensive, and controversial in this polarized political environment. The scary skepticism of science driven by social media, cable news, and some political leaders adds another issue we did not see decades ago.

Offshore wind controversy

This week, a State Senate Committee will hold a hearing on a plan to buy electricity from offshore wind projects.

Hardcore opponents of wind power are sure to state their case, bolstered by recent issues related to electricity costs and towers affecting ocean views.

We have reached the point where some farmers in another part of the country who are setting up solar arrays to bolster their income have been threatened. The issue of solar farms gobbling up farmland is not to be ignored but has been overblown.

Some businesses are becoming more low-key in their efforts at a cleaner environment over fears of a backlash from a few shareholders and gadflies.

Still, more than ever, the lessons of Earth Day and the progress to date should not be forgotten. – Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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