How Far Have we Gone in 50 Years?

Written by Madalyn Buursma

As we look to all the work that still needs to be done in environmental work, it can easy to be discouraged. But we shouldn’t be, and we shouldn’t forget how far we’ve gone and how much we’ve achieved in the past 50 years.

The modern day environmental movement started 50 years ago, give or take a year. If you’ve noticed a lot of environmental organizations are celebrating their 50th anniversary — Earth Day, the EPA, WMEAC — that’s why.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River burst into flames. Though it wasn’t the first time the river had burned, or even the worst time, it forced environmental issues on to the national stage. The following decade was full of milestones.

The next year, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin created the first national Earth Day. Across the country, 20 million people participated in the event. It was a catalyst for necessary legislation: the EPA was founded by President Nixon. The Clean Air Act, originally passed in 1963, was amended to become more effective. Other environmental organizations, such as the the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where all founded.

In 1972, the International Great Lakes Water Quality agreement was passed, as was the Clean Water Act. In Michigan, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, which stops an unauthorized diversion, dredging and filling of inland lakes and streams was also passed. The EPA banned the use of DDT pesticide.

The next year, the Endangered Species Act was passed, expanding on the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed. In 1976, the Michigan Bottle Bill, placing a ten cent deposit per bottle, still the highest in the country, was passed after a fight led by WMEAC.

Within a decade, the legislative groundwork had been laid out to protect the environment. But people weren’t done yet.

In the next decade, the Michigan Environmental Council was formed. The Great Lakes Oil Drilling Ban, which protects the Great Lakes from oil and gas development, was passed. The Ocean Dumping Ban Act was signed. Internationally, the United States signed the Montreal Protocol along with 23 other countries. The signing countries agreed to phase out CFCs, ozone-depleting chemicals, by the year 2000.

As the nation became aware of how environmental issues impact people in general, another movement was started: the Environmental Justice Movement. In 1982, 500 activists were arrested at the Sit-in Against Warren County, a non-violent protest against a a polychlorinated biphenyl landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. Through the protest was not successful in halting the construction of the landfill, it ultimately started the Environmental Justice Movement.

In 1990 the Clean Air Act was amended, an act that has proven to be very successful: per the EPA, “Aggregate emissions of six common pollutants dropped 73% between 1970 and 2017.” But after the many groundbreaking legislations were passed in the 1970s and a bit into the 1980s, movement started to slow down.

Still, environmental activists continued their work, and many new agencies were created. In Michigan, the West Michigan Environmental Coalition, the Business Forum for Sustainable Development, the Environmental Health Working Group were all formed in the 1990s.

The world was still listening. In 1992, the UN held the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), often referred to as the “Earth summit.” The summit resulted in Agenda 21, which resolved for sustainable development worldwide.

The accomplishments of the 2000s and 2010s reflect the impact small actions have. In Grand Rapids, every single stream within a mile of Grand Rapids has been adopted through WMEAC’s Adopt-a-Stream program, for water quality monitoring and restoration by 2006. Recycling rates increase from six percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2015, according to the EPA.

The work of organizations to inform the public on issues have been successful: a 2019 Pew Research study found that 56 percent of adults now say “protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress.”

There is still much work to be done. As we look to the future, and focus on continued water quality issues, waste issues, and others, it’s easy to be discouraged. But we need to remember how much the environmental movement has done in the past 50 years. In the past fifty years, people have become more aware of their impact on the environment, and more aware on how to consciously steward it.

How far have we gone in 50 years? Very far.

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