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The Forgotten Legacy of Environmentalism

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With our intense focus on the election, the financial implosion on Wall Street, and lipstick on pigs, we easily forget that early pioneers of environmentalism made possible the world we now live in today. Only by a razor thin margin did we avoid a catastrophic slide to water we could no longer drink and air we could no longer breathe.

Sixty years ago, in October 1948, the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, was the harbinger of our dark future. The town was host to heavy industry, including the American Steel & Wire Company and U.S. Steel's Zinc Works. Citizens were familiar with thick acrid smog. Most considered the metallic odor in the air to be the smell of money, so few objected. The townsfolk, though, were unprepared for an unusually persistent inversion layer, which trapped higher and higher concentrations of dirty air for five consecutive days. When a merciful rain finally cleared the air on October 31, 20 people lay dead. More than half the town was seriously ill. From air pollution.

Just a few years later, in December 1952, a killer smog felled thousands of Londoners in just four days. Visibility in the city fell to just one foot, creating a permanent toxic night. Lips turned blue from lack of oxygen. People suffocated to death breathing the poisoned air.

Until the mid-eighties, gasoline was dumping billions of tons of lead into the air, even as studies revealed ever greater toxicity at ever smaller concentrations, particularly in children. Raw sewage and untreated agricultural wastes were contaminating our rivers, streams and lakes.

The world was marching inexorably toward a global environmental apocalypse. Pollution was killing thousands and sickening millions. Without the environmental movement, that would be our fate today.

Opposition to environmental legislation was, and is, clearly misguided. Exposure to lead at an early age is now known to cause neurological problems, even at extremely low doses. Since 1984, airborne lead concentrations have fallen 98 percent because of environmental activism. We have seen declines in airborne sulfur dioxide of 35 percent and carbon monoxide of 32 percent even as our GDP has more than doubled. Yet let us never forget that efforts to clean the air were vehemently opposed when first introduced. Remember the hue and cry of those who foresaw economic calamity when the lead phase-out was legislated. Industry gravely predicted that tens of thousands of gas stations would go out of business. Let us always remember the hysterical cries of economic doom as we tightened pollutions standards with the Clean Air Act in 1970. Every major automobile manufacturer came to Washington with tales of impending bankruptcy should the proposed act become law. None of the predictions of economic failure came to pass.

History has proven, clearly and unambiguously, that environmentalists are on the right side of this debate. We would otherwise be breathing black poisonous air and drinking mercury-laden water laced with raw sewage. Yet, amazingly, we still debate when we should instead be focusing on solutions. We continue to fight the false notion that protecting nature comes at the cost of economic growth.

The success of the environmental movement has ironically obscured the urgent need to protect our vital resources. The automobile industry, learning nothing from the battles of the 1970s, continues to strongly oppose tighter standards for fuel efficiency. As a result, automakers in China and Japan now produce cars that exceed not only current standards in the United States, but even the tighter standards that U.S. manufacturers now oppose. Bush relaxes standards for mercury and lead in air and water. We focus on short-term solutions like drilling off-shore or in ANWR and blindly ignore the long-term consequences. We continue to destroy tropical forests at a rate of 40 million acres per year. We dump 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air, and then pretend that changing the chemistry of the atmosphere will have no impact on climate.

As we elect a new president, we must work to move this ball forward, keeping fresh the history of Donora, Pennsylvania and London, England. Those who deny global warming or oppose strengthening standards for fuel efficiency, laws to protect our air and water, efforts to promote renewable energies, and programs to save forests and coral reefs have lots of 'splaining to do. History simply proves them wrong. These opponents of environmentalism have the privilege of promoting their agenda in breathable air and potable water because of the very programs they now oppose.

The time has come to shift the discussion about environmental protection to green economics, forever burying the notion that resource protection diminishes growth. We must operate on the proven assumption that protecting the environment makes sense as a means of protecting our health, the resources on which we depend, and our future. If we no longer need to defend the obvious, we can focus our attention on green technologies and renewable energies as the engines of future economic growth and sustainable prosperity

We are all survivors of Donora, PA. Let us not forget.