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Fifty Years of Earth Day Celebrations

Kenya water tank

In Kenya, 1989, we visited our Peace Corps daughter Betsy and celebrated the completion of the town water tank

Fifty years ago I was cheering and celebrating the First Earth Day with hundreds of other people in the center of West Hartford, Connecticut. My five children, ages 11 to 4, were with me. I don’t know what they took in and what they made of all the excitement, but it was exciting. And I can report that Betsy, age 6 was already beginning her career as an activist.

Betsy was in kindergarten at the time and she was distressed because she wanted to play in the school playground with its swings and monkey bars. She strongly objected to the rule that girls had to wear dresses because the boys were always flipping up their skirts, chanting and laughing, “I see London, I see France. I see Betsy’s underpants.” She took me to the school principal, made her case, and girls were soon allowed to wear pants. I cannot say that Betsy changed the rules in the high school, but girls there were agitating to wear jeans to school as well. They also got a rule change.

Shorts and jeans instead of skirts had nothing to do with Earth Day, but they do hint at all the changes that were happening. Scientists, and some others, were already seeing the dangers and damage being done to our environment. In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring which was a best seller here and in 24 other countries. Silent Spring raised public awareness of the dangers to living creatures and public health as the environment became more polluted.

In fairness, the government was making its own observations. In 1955 President Eisenhower authorized the Air Pollution Control Act to research air pollution. President Johnson authorized the Clean Air Act in 1963, the first federal legislation regarding air pollution control. In 1967 Johnson enacted the Air Quality Act to expand government activities. In 1970 President Nixon extended the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) went to work. Further amendments were made in 1990 by President George Bush.

The results of these acts were listed in a United Nations report. The EPA estimates that these amendments to the act prevented 230,00 early deaths caused by respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis and asthma. “Between 1990 and 2018 carbon monoxide fell 74 per cent, ground level ozone declining by 21 per cent, and lead decreasing by 82 per cent from 2010. Along with improving visibility, reducing the risk of acid rain and helping protect the ozone layer, a range of other health, environmental and financial benefits can be traced to the Clean Air Act. The environmental benefits that stem from these reductions include decreased warming as well as healthier soil, freshwater bodies and vegetation.

The financial legacy of the Act has also stimulated the nation’s economy. The US$65 billion worth of costs associated with implementing the Act’s measures has been more than paid for through reduced medical bills and increased worker productivity. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates almost US$2 trillion in benefits.”

Of course, Clean Water Acts followed along with the Clean Air Acts. In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Safe Drinking Water Act, the first piece of legislation of its kind to provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for overseeing the nation’s drinking water supply. There have certainly been improvements, but we all know the stories about drinking water in Flint Michigan.

I am happy to say that daughter Betsy took up the yoke for clean water after she graduated from Clark University. She worked for a professor for a time, but soon signed up for the Peace Corps and left for Kenya. Her goal there was to bring drinking water to the village where she was assigned. She organized the villagers to repair one big tank, and build another one in the village. She also oversaw the digging to bring drinking water to the village to fill those tanks. This was a big improvement over having the women and girls carry water from more than a mile away.

When she returned to Massachusetts she earned her PhD at Clark and began working for the MWRA, MassachusettsWater Resource Authority.  Briefly, she now oversees the drinking water and wastewater quality programs to make sure MWRA is meeting regulatory requirements. They monitor water quality from water source to homeowner taps and maintain analyzers. She and her staff are also responsible for monitoring results for wastewater into Massachusetts Bay and Boston.

There are many ways and projects that people have worked on to improve our air and water and climate. Progress has been made and work continues. I recently learned that on Earth Day 2010 a goal was set for planting a billion trees. That goal was reached in 2012. The Plant For The Planet organization has watched many organizations and youth groups around the world plant 13.6 billion trees.

I don’t know whether Greening Greenfield is aware of Plant For the Planet, but that organization has planted many hundreds of trees in town over recent years. We might not think too much about the important benefits to our climate when we see trees planted along the tree strips or in our parks, but we do appreciate their beauty and their shade. Planting trees, planting pollinator plants tsupport the creatures, bees, flies,  butterflies and as well as birds which are threatened when the foods they need disappear.

When we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day this year, we can be proud of the changes we have wrought, but we know there are many more changes to be made.###

Between the Rows    April 18, 2020

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