Earth Day May No Longer Be Needed

After nearly thirty years, Earth Day may be obsolete.

Thirty years ago, Americans had good reason to be concerned about the environment. In 1966, 80 people reportedly died from air pollution-related causes during a four-day temperature inversion in New York City. In 1969, a stretch of the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio spontaneously caught fire as a result of industrial waste. That same year, an oil rig rupture off the coast of California near Santa Barbara poured 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an 800-square mile slick and wreaking environmental havoc on 35 miles of coastline. Daily news footage of tar-drenched cormorants, grebes and other seabirds in the aftermath of the oil spill raised public awareness to the environment and provided a major impetus for the first Earth Day.

But much has changed since 1970.

“I grew up in Long Beach,” commented Cecilia Fidora, a California Sierra Club chapter chairman, during last year’s Earth Day celebration. “You could never see the mountains when I was a kid. Now you can see the San Gabriel Mountains nearly every day. I think our air is cleaner than it was 27 years ago, even though there are more people and more automobiles.”

The air is much cleaner than it was in 1970.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 1970 and 1993, total air pollution emissions declined by 24%. Lead emissions dropped by 98%, soot by 71%, sulphur oxides by 20%, carbon monoxide by 24%, and volatile organic compounds by 24%. Sulfur dioxide levels decreased by 50.3% between 1975 and 1993 while nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by 32.7% between 1977 and 1993. This trend is continuing: Since 1990, the number of metropolitan areas failing to meet air quality standards has dropped by two-thirds, from 199 cities down to less than 70. During the same period, the number of Americans breathing unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide declined by 24 million while the number breathing unhealthy levels of ozone dropped by 43 million.

Significant strides have been made in improving water quality as well. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s streams and rivers, 82% of its lakes and 87% of its estuaries were considered safe for swimming in 1990, according to the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. And oil spills like the one that polluted the waters off Santa Barbara in 1969 are becoming a thing of the past. According to the EPA, the amount of oil spilled in the nation’s waters dropped from 22 million gallons per year during mid-1970s to just two million gallons in 1992, a more than 90% decrease.

The nation’s forests, once thought to be seriously endangered, are also improving. The average volume of standing timber today is approximately one-third greater than in 1952. In the eastern United States, the average volume per acre has nearly doubled. Nationwide, forest growth now exceeds harvest each year by close to 40%.

But just as the nation’s environmental fortunes have risen, Earth Day’s fortunes — and indeed those of the environmental movement — have declined.

When the first Earth Day was held 28 years ago, an estimated 20 million Americans participated in organized demonstrations, rallies and other events. By 1994, less than a million people bothered to show up for the celebration.

The environmental movement has suffered a similar decline. Over the past decade, the number of households making contributions to environmental causes has dropped dramatically — from 16.3% to 11.5% of all households. Membership in environmental organizations has also been on the decline. Last August, for example, Greenpeace USA had to lay-off all but 100 of its 400 employees and close its ten regional offices after its membership — the lifeblood of its fundraising operation — dropped from a peak of 1.2 million in 1991 to just 400,000 last year. Several years earlier, the Sierra Club had to lay off 26 employees after its membership dropped.

One plausible explanation for public apathy toward Earth Day and the environmental movement is that they are no longer needed to convince the American people that steps to protect the environment are needed. Not only is the nation’s water and air much cleaner and forestland more abundant today than at the time of first Earth Day, but more Americans than ever consider themselves environmentalists. According to a recent survey by the Charlton Research Company, a full two-thirds of Americans consider themselves as either strong or moderate environmentalists, while only 16% do not.

Another plausible explanation for the decline of Earth Day is that the environmental movement is increasingly viewed as either outside the mainstream of public opinion or even worse, is an outright obstacle to further environmental progress. For example, environmental groups have for years opposed efforts to change or replace the Endangered Species Act (ESA) even though the ESA has failed to save even one threatened or endangered species in 25 years. The ESA has, however, systematically violated private property rights and cost the economy a bundle.

With environmental progress continuing, environmental consciousness high among the American people and the environmental movement increasingly viewed as an obstacle to further environmental progress, both Earth Day and the environmental movement may have run their course.


David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group’s environmental programs. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.