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Earth Day 2008

A Little Perspective

It began in 1970, on April 22nd, to be precise. It was the first Earth Day here in the United States and while it took the country by storm, kick-starting an environmental movement that is with us to this day, it also took the American political establishment by surprise. In fact, during the 1968 presidential race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the environment was little more than a campaign throw-away. John C. Whitaker was there and as Nixon's Cabinet Secretary (1969); associate director of the White House Domestic Council for environment, energy, and natural resources policy (1969-1972); and Undersecretary of the Department of the Interior (1973-1975), he saw it all. In an article for the July/August 1988 edition of the EPA Journal, Whitaker wrote:

When President Nixon and his staff walked into the White House on January 20, 1969, we were totally unprepared for the tidal wave of public opinion in favor of cleaning the nation's environment that was about to engulf us. If Hubert Humphrey had become President, the result would have been the same.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, neither the Nixon nor Humphrey campaign gave more than lip service to environmental issues. Rather, their thoughts focused on such issues as Vietnam, prosperity, the rising crime rate, and inflation. Nixon made one radio speech on natural resources and the quality of the environment, which seemed adequate to cover an issue that stirred little interest among the electorate.

In the Humphrey camp, things were just as quiet. He dedicated a park in San Antonio, Texas, and the John Day Dam in Oregon, using both occasions to discuss the environment and conservation. Otherwise, Humphrey said nothing on the issue.

If the candidates showed little interest in the issue, so did the national press corps. In fact, Nixon staff members do not recall even one question put to him about the environment.

Yet only 17 months after the election, on April 22, 1970, the country celebrated Earth Day, with a national outpouring of concern for cleaning up the environment. Politicians of both parties jumped on the issue. So many politicians were on the stump on Earth Day that Congress was forced to close down. The oratory, one of the wire services observed, was "as thick as smog at rush hour."


That rhetorical smog hasn’t cleared much in the intervening 38 years. Where the focus was once the clean-up of the air and water (who can forget the Indian brave watching the oil, garbage and other pollution float by with a tear in his eye?), it has evolved into the whole green movement with its threat of global warming and promise of new technology to cure all our energy ills.

Not that this sort of thing has worked well in the past. According to Whitaker, Nixon knew he would pay a political price by not proposing the "toughest" and costliest pollution control standards, but after looking at the federal budget and the macro-economic impact, he chose a more moderate course. As it turned out, Congress, fanned by the political hurricane of the environmental movement, enacted deadlines that could never be met, like the 1977 deadline for secondary treatment of municipal waste, and an $18 billion appropriation over the three-year life of the law, which couldn't even be dispensed under the law's cumbersome grant system. Similarly, Congress legislated technology that didn't exist by setting emission standards for automobiles that couldn't be met and later had to be postponed. The missed 1987 year-end ozone deadlines is another glaring example of Congress' tendency to legislate non-existent technology.

So, here we are today, in the middle of a presidential election where the candidates are each staking out their own places aboard the environmental bandwagon. The plans from Obama and Clinton have, for the most part, a great deal in common. Cap and Trade systems to reduce carbon emissions, the development of clean energy technology, renewable resources, bio-fuels, higher fuel economy and efficiency standards, digital Smart Grid power systems and infrastructure for charging electric and hybrid cars, grant programs, research and development—the whole nine yards. McCain’s idea of “common sense stewardship” of the land and the nation’s resources sets him apart from his rivals on the left yet he shares many of the same program elements with them. That said, he also sets aside a great deal of money for nuclear reactor construction, no doubt looking at the success of nuclear energy in France, Japan and other countries that generate most of their power from nuclear reactors. Obama, on the other hand seems to be ready to constrict nuclear energy even further by scrapping the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility, which will soon be ready to come online.

Prepare to hear all this and a lot more. Maybe not from the candidates themselves, on the Democratic side they’re trying to wring as many votes out of Pennsylvania as they can, but I am sure that the campaigns will give some lip service to Earth Day. Given the fact that so much of their respective plans is based on technology that is yet to be invented and pushing major legislative packages through a Congress with its own issues and allegiances, that may be all we get from them. Back in 1988, Whitaker made this observation: Today we have infinitely more scientific capability and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis to steer a course toward a cleaner environment. The question is, will our elected officials and executive branch regulators be willing to lean into the political winds, as we did, and act on the basis of objective information?

We’ll see.

Forget Washington! How Can I Celebrate Earth Day?

There are a number of things you can do to celebrate Earth Day. There are events across the country as well as all sorts of things you can do both at home and at work to mark the day and renew your commitment to the environment.

At Work

There are plenty of things you and your company can do to green your workplace. Here are some suggestions from the EPA to help you get started.

The EPA: A good environmental steward?
EPA lives Earth Day every day by operating sustainable facilities and using environmentally preferable practices. Learn more about how the Agency is reducing energy and water use, purchasing green power, constructing green buildings, and preventing pollution.

Greening EPA

How can my employer be more energy efficient?
One easy way is by choosing office products (computers, faxes, etc.) that have earned an ENERGY STAR label. You can also help your organization become more aware of opportunities for increased efficiency.


Increase Awareness at Work

How can my company promote environmental stewardship?
EPA has voluntary programs that can help companies large and small reduce their environmental impacts while also saving energy and resources.

Find out what you can do at work

Find out how companies in every industrial sector –including agriculture – can “green” their facilities and processes, by exploring EPA's many voluntary partnership programs.

Lean manufacturing is a business model and collection of methods that help eliminate waste while delivering quality products on time and at least cost.

How can I reduce the environmental impacts of commuting?
Encourage your employer to be a "Best Workplaces for Commuters." Offering recognition for innovative solutions to commuting challenges faced by employers and employees, Best Workplaces for Commuters is a new public-private sector voluntary program advocating employer-provided commuter benefits.

Best Workplaces for Commuters 

How do I manage electronic equipment replacement?
The Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) is a voluntary partnership program that encourages federal facilities and agencies to produce greener electronic products, reduce impacts of electronic products during use, and to manage obsolete electronics in an environmentally safe way.

Federal Electronics Challenge 

How can my company adopt an Environmental Management System?
EPA makes sure that we are "walking the talk" when we encourage citizens to protect the environment and their health. EPA has put a new Environmental Management System (EMS) in place at our offices to reduce our environmental footprint by acknowledging the environmental aspects of our day-to-day activities and management. At EPA Headquarters, we are reducing the impact of our energy and water use, waste generation, natural resource depletion, and pollution associated with commuting to and operating our facilities and tracking our progress with our new EMS.

Environmental Management Systems (EMSs) resources for businesses, associations, the public, and state and federal agencies

At Home
Here are some great environmental resources from the EPA that can help you make your home a greener, healthier and safer place to be

What and where can I recycle?
Reducing consumption, reusing items, and recycling products and materials help to protect the environment. EPA offers you information on which products you can recycle, which help prevent waste and reduce consumption; and ways to reuse dozens of items.

EPA's Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Web site

Recycle City Web Site - helps you learn about and explore how residents in this make-believe city are protecting their environment.

How can I care for my lawn and yard?
Mowing the lawn and taking care of your yard often produce large amounts of waste. By reducing waste, recycling your grass clippings, mulching, and composting, you can improve your lawn and garden, and protect your corner of the planet.

"Greenscaping Your Lawn and Garden"

How do I use pesticides safely?
Here's how you can find out about pest control in a variety of settings (household, garden, school) using integrated pest management techniques.

Pest Control

How can I make my home more energy efficient?
Energy efficient choices can save families about a third on their home energy bills with similar savings of greenhouse gases without sacrificing style or comfort.


How clean is the electricity I use?
Electricity is generated in many different ways. Now you have a choice in choosing the source of your power and how it is generated by using EPA's Power Profiler.

EPA's Power Profiler: See how clean your power can be

How can I support cleaner electricity generation?
Green power offers users an option to support newer technologies that capture renewable energy sources to create electricity.

Visit EPA's Green Power Locator to find out about green power options in your area

How do I reduce and dispose of household hazardous wastes?
Americans generate 1.6 million tons of household hazardous waste per year, including paints, cleaners, stains and varnishes, car batteries, motor oil, and pesticides. When they are not properly handled, household hazardous waste can pose health risk to people and the environment.

Steps to Safe Management of Household Hazardous Waste. Learn how you can reduce the amount of household hazardous waste you generate and ensure that those wastes are safely stored and handled.

How can I reduce the amount of garbage I generate?
Individual consumers can help alleviate America's mounting trash problem by making environmentally aware decisions about everyday things like shopping and caring for the lawn. Like the story that says that cats have nine lives, so do many of the items that we use every day. Reusing products is just one way to cut down on what we throw away.

The Consumer's Handbook for Reducing Solid Waste. Learn about practical steps you can take to reduce the amount and toxicity of your garbage.

Is my tap water safe?
Because of water's different sources and the different ways in which water is treated, the taste and quality of drinking water varies from place to place. Over 90 percent of our water suppliers meet standards for tap water quality. The best source of specific information about your drinking water is your water supplier:

EPA's Ground Water and Drinking Water Web site

How can I prevent stormwater pollution?
Keep litter, pet wastes, leaves, and debris out of the street gutters and storm drains that drain directly to lake, streams, rivers, and wetlands. Apply lawn and garden chemicals sparingly and according to directions.

What You Can Do

How can I protect my family from mercury in fish?
Fish are a lean, low-calorie source of protein. However, some fish may contain chemicals that can pose health risks. When contaminant levels are unsafe, consumption advisories may recommend that people limit or avoid eating certain species of fish caught in certain places.

EPA's Fish Advisories Web site offers a brochure to help women of child-bearing age and children select fish to avoid exposures to harmful effects of mercury.

Should I care if my vehicle's "check engine" light turns on?
All cars and light trucks since 1996 have a computer-based system called "on-board diagnostics" (OBD) that monitors the performance of some of the engine's major components, including emission controls. When the "check engine" or "service engine" light comes on and stays on, your OBD system is telling you that it has detected a problem with your vehicle. Getting your vehicle repaired when the OBD light appears can protect the environment, save you time and money before minor problems become major repairs.

Find out about on-board diagnostics

How can I protect my children from lead poisoning?
Lead-based paint is a hazard if it is peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking. Even undisturbed lead-based paint can be a problem if it is in surfaces that children chew or that get lots of wear and tear.

How to protect your children from lead poisoning

How can I protect my children from second-hand smoke?
Secondhand smoke can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, ear infections and more severe asthma attacks.

Take the Smoke-free Home Pledge to help protect your children's health

How can I find out if my home has a radon problem?
You can't see, smell, or taste radon, but it may be a problem in your home. Radon exposures can result in lung cancer. Nearly one in 15 homes in the U.S. has a high level of indoor radon.

Learn how to avoid radon risks

How do I find products or services that are water-efficient?
WaterSense is a voluntary public-private partnership to promote water efficiency. Look for the WaterSense label to find products and programs that meet water-efficiency and performance criteria and help save money and encourage innovation in manufacturing.

Water saving tips for consumers

For communities

More simple steps to save water

For more information on these programs and Earth Day events around the country, visit

Happy Earth Day!

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