Our Extraordinary 50th Earth Day

Yves here. I hate to be a sticker regarding this fine Earth Day tribute….but it’s not as if getting to a coronavirus vaccine is a given.

By Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Happy 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Well, sort of anyway, “happy” being a relative term in these extraordinarily turbulent times.

This no doubt will be the strangest Earth Day: Each day since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic took hold may qualify as the strangest … until tomorrow comes.

That said, past Earth Days have brought together large assemblies of persons across the globe to celebrate our planet and fight for its continued wellbeing. None of that this year, please, other than digitally and with all due respect for the critical need for physical and social distancing. (Think Andrea Bocelli singing “Amazing Grace” in an empty courtyard in front of Milan’s Duomo Cathedral this past Easter Day.)

In the personal confines sequestering many of us this April 22, it will be important to acknowledge some inarguable conclusions:

  • We wouldn’t want to be living today in the environment of a United States that has not benefited from the environmental, conservation, and pollution control efforts triggered at the start of the ’70s by then-President Richard M. Nixon and his January 1 declaration of “the environmental decade.”
  • Picture our current 328+ million people and the air we would be breathing today were it not for the extraordinary progress made under the 1970 Clean Air Act. Remember days of “headlights at noon” ranging from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles? No thank you.
  • Or picture the water quality of our endless rivers, lakes, and streams were it not for the gains made under the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act (AKA Clean Water Act). “Don’t come in, the water’s foul!” we’d be urging.
  • Or recall the so-called potable water that was being swept down the Mississippi River to folks in New Orleans. Kentucky’s best bourbons couldn’t have sufficed to make it worth tasting.
  • Endangered species? Wild and scenic rivers? Endless strip mining and “mountain top removal” (a euphemism for sure), “Right to know,” pervasive and random application of all sorts of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and more? Major federal laws on each were enacted in that first decade of Earth Days.

And that short listing doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the victories gained – the pollution and environmental degradation avoided – as a result of the January 1970 enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, with its provisions for environmental impact statements. A modern world without NEPA? I’d rather not, thanks.

None of which, by the way, is intended to suggest that any of those statutes, nor the vast and complex implementing regulations under them, are “perfect.” Far from it. Nor does it suggest that the battles are won, the gains so far achieved irreversible. Farther still. Created as they were by fallible beings, working always in a political and imperfect system, valid criticisms apply across the board. Overly litigious? Check. In some cases convoluted and imprecise? Got it. Idealistically ambitious in some cases (think “zero discharge” by 1977 under the Water Act)? True. Shortcomings abound.

But that’s OK, and in the end a tribute to and not a criticism of these five decades of accomplishment and aspiration since Earth Day One.


And oh, the ironies. This year’s Earth Day will be observed throughout much of the U.S. and the world in a period of unusually clean air and clear skies, distant horizons now visible in the absence of the smog and air pollution long endured in many places as being normal. Think here of a New Delhi resident’s for the first time seeing the majesty of the Himalayas, the smog temporarily abated. Those air pollutants, as with those responsible for global warming, are diminished substantially, but certainly only temporarily: They’re gone as a result of the dearth now of what many have now come to abide, however reluctantly, as “normal,” the detritus from routine air and highway miles traveled daily by millions domestically and billions worldwide.

The cleaner air bonanza afforded us by the constraints imposed by the coronavirus realities – SPOILER ALERT: another irony here – comes during the tenure of what must clearly be regarded as the single most anti-environmental presidential administration of any in U.S. history. That characterization applies to, and beyond, the highly controversial targeted evisceration of regulations and policies aimed over the past three-plus years specifically at the preceding administration’s climate change efforts. But it applies nowhere more than in the climate change context. And that’s notwithstanding this President’s protestations to the contrary, including his saying he is “an environmentalist.” That clearly is – what does one call it? – “fake news.”

It will be ironic too, won’t it, if year-end official atmospheric data show calendar year 2020 to have measured the most progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Or perhaps even if data at the end of this administration’s tenure show major declines in greenhouse gas emissions? The irony is gobsmacking but the likelihood highly possible. Prepare for it.

In the end, this 50th Earth Day will come. And go. That much is clear. What is far less clear at this point is the potential impact, physically and psychologically, that the eventual post-coronavirus era will have on public and political attitudes toward addressing the climate challenges still confronting the planet. Will the 60th, or 70th, or even centennial celebration of Earth Day find the coronavirus lessons fully learned and applied to climate change? Will the global climate by then have been healed, or still ailing and even far more so?

Perhaps, just perhaps, the world’s people and their leaders at all levels will have come together well before then to confront and overcome the perils of global warming, just as they certainly must come together soon to defeat coronavirus.

If only doing so were as simple and as straightforward as developing and providing a vaccine.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. The Rev Kev

    It was a different time back in the 60s and 70s as in the following-

    Richard M. Nixon – “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

    Environmental movement – “Challenge Accepted!”

    And they made him do it as well. But yeah, I would hate to think what the US be like without those 1970s laws on the books. Every city’s water would be like Flint, Michigan and the air would be like in Beijing on a bad day.

    1. Phacops

      And, despite what he did in other areas, makes Nixon look far more progressive than the Democrats of today.

      1. rd

        Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were Nixon and Democratic Congress together. RCRA was Ford and Democratic Congress. CERCLA (Superfund) was Carter and Democratic Congress. Major RCRA regulations and CERCLA SARA Amendments were Reagan and Democratic Congress.

        Conservation and conservative have the same etymology. Unfortunately, modern “conservatives” don’t understand that.

        Republican Presidents were at the forefront of environmental protection in the 1970s and 1980s. The Clean Water Act and Clean Water Act are the primary redeeming features of Richard Nixon’s tumultuous presidency. Ultimately, they have been critical in restoring our air and water over the past 50 years.

  2. Rod

    did not find this in the article above(small oversight)


    click for a fresh breadth
    right now!!
    the revolution will not be televised, but is online now.

    do something and YOU will feel better

    write your critter now; call your bank now; call your friends to wish them a good future by acting now

    1. Rod

      This is the teach in youth climate strikers are running through the end of the week at


      There may be a schism within the movement

  3. Asher Miller

    Earth Day 50, Under Lockdown by Richard Heinberg:

    “Tired old promises about green growth won’t get us there. What we need instead is a collective change of heart and mind that leads to fundamental shifts in institutions and norms, prioritizing well-being and life satisfaction over ever-more consumption—just as we’re prioritizing health over economic activity by quarantining ourselves during the pandemic.”


    1. Arizona Slim

      Could this be the new normal that we go forward to? I’d rather do this than go back to normal.

  4. Susan the other

    Yes. Let’s never forget Earth Day. I like to think that it’s a case of relentless success. We’re a little battered and bloody but the fight is not quite over. The one thing, serendipity?, that I’m most encouraged by is the oil crisis. Oil is never coming back. The use of energy will never be the same. We will all learn just what Earth Day means. We’ll slow down. We might start thinking again. And looking back on all the pollution we caused in our rush to wealth some of us will have a wave of empathy come over us for all the creatures that are on the brink of extinction.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    Well to be fair, the reason we have cleaner air in the US is because we shipped all the pollution to China, not because we stopped it. Never been to China, but from photos it appears many Chinese were wearing masks when they went outdoors long before coronavirus was a thing just because of pollution.

    1. Phacops

      Hate to agree with you, but that point is germane. And, what about the talk of green energy? One of Michael Moore’s filmmakers has a bit to say about that: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE in his Planet of Humans.

      The only thing that will help, and is avoided being discussed by everybody, is a reduction of the human population.

      1. juno mas

        Are you suggesting we open up the country? And let the pandemic cull for “herd immunity” :) .

        1. Phacops

          There are other ways. SARS-CoV 2 is merely a shot across the bow and any species exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity while destroying ecosystem services will eventually crash.

          Without that reduction, “green” energy is entirely insufficient to support our population and population reduction is absolutely necessary. Renewable energy is merely PR greenwashing. I’d suggest you watch this from Michael Moore: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE

      2. Carla

        Re: a reduction of the human population. The best birth control method known so far is educating women. Educated women have fewer babies!

        In addition to reducing and stabilizing the world’s population, we will need steady-state national and global economies ;-)

        1. xkeyscored

          It seems the COVID lockdowns are going to result in a baby boom. Various metrics, like increased orders for pregnancy tests, point in this direction.

        2. John Rose

          This is a hopeful and appropriate alternative to the draconian Chinese model of 30-40 years ago.

  6. K teh

    Trillions and trillions in MMT over a few months.

    This is the biggest rape of children in human history and nearly all the media, including blogs, is pretending otherwise.

    And people are going to vote for these characters again.

    My brother in law is a cop making a mint on the exercise, and they are going to get a ticket tape parade.

    America has turned into a Sci-Fi movie.

Comments are closed.