Earth Day: You have got to admit it is getting better. A little better all the time!

Earth Day was first observed on April 22, 1970 as the brainchild of former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI).  One of the leading proponents of environmentalism and conservation at the time, Sen. Nelson envisioned Earth Day as an “environmental teach-in” that would generate popular support for an environmental agenda.  Modeled on the anti-war teach-ins of the gloomy Vietnam era, over 20 million people participated in the inaugural Earth Day.  Ever since, Earth Day has been a largely somber event that sounds the alarm on impending environmental doom.

As well as generating awareness of environmental problems, Earth Day should be a celebration of the wonderful achievements humankind has made in cleaning and greening the planet.

Although there will always be areas for improvement, environmental quality in this country has improved significantly. Technological improvements, increases in wealth that have enabled greater consumer demand for cleaner products and services, and sensible regulations that protect property rights have helped lead the United States to have some of the cleanest air and water in the world.

Here are some fast facts on some environmental quality trends in the United States:

  • From 1980 to 2011, U.S. gross domestic product has increased 128%, vehicle miles traveled increased 94%, population grew by 37%, and energy consumption increased by 26%. Despite these trends, the six common air pollutants declined by 63% over this time period.
  • From 1980 to 2010, concentrations of pollutants in the air decreased significantly. Specifically, carbon monoxide concentrations decreased 82%, ozone concentrations decreased 28%, lead concentrations decreased 89%, nitrogen dioxide concentrations decreased 52%, and sulfur dioxide concentrations decreased 83%.
  • From the early 1990s to 2005, mercury emissions decreased 58%.
  • From 2000 to 2010, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air decreased by 27%.
  • From 1990 to 2010, course particulate matter (PM 10) in the air decreased by 38%.
  • The EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI), a metric used for declaring days on which the air is “unhealthy” for sensitive people (children, the elderly, and people with respiratory ailments) in metropolitan areas, also reveals a similar success story. From 1999 to 2008, the AQI declined almost 63%, meaning that there are 63% fewer days that air quality is unhealthy for sensitive populations.
  • Vehicles in the late 1960s emitted over 75 grams of carbon monoxide per mile. New vehicles today emit less than 0.4 grams per mile which represents a 99.5% reduction in emission intensity.
  • Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions from individual cars and trucks have declined 99% from the late 1960s to 2012—from 10 grams per mile in 1968 to 0.062 grams per mile today.
  • Other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene and formaldehyde, have also decreased dramatically. The EPA reports that ambient levels of most of the 187 regulated air toxics declined by as much as 5% each year between 2003 and 2010. Benzene, the most prevalent HAP, has declined 66%.
  • U.S. forestland has been expanding rapidly over the last two decades. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 20 million acres have been added since the late 1980s.
  • Despite growth in population and significant increases in the U.S. gross domestic product, the United States has about the same amount of forestland it had 100 years ago.
  • After increasing from 1940 to 1980, total water use has leveled off over the last 30 years. In addition, per person water use in the country decreased 30% since 1975.
  • Public water supply systems, which provide drinking water to more than 90% of U.S. citizens, are tested to comply with very strict health based standards. In 1993, 79% of public water systems had no violations of any contaminants. This rose to 94% in 2008.
  • Since 1980, U.S. energy efficiency has increased over 43%.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service shows that the U.S. fisheries are improving at a steady pace. Since 2000, the Fish Stock Sustainability Index has risen by 60% which represents significant progress in the quality of fisheries in this country.
  • EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) tracks “releases” of more than 600 different chemical compounds for more than 20,000 sites across the country. The TRI data shows a 65% reduction in “releases” since 1988.

Going forward, we should celebrate the amazing environmental improvements we have already made as a nation.  Instead of looking bleakly toward a future of environmental degradation, we should be optimistic that environmental quality will inevitably improve as efficiencies, rational regulation, and wealth that enables us to afford environmental quality get better every single day.

 

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