06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the Earth Turns: How Environmentalism Has Evolved

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.

When Earth Day was first celebrated 40 years ago today, environmental distress was in our face. Rivers caught fire, oil spills fouled U.S. shores, toxic waste dumps proliferated, and Los Angeles seemed permanently wreathed in smog. Now we worry more about things we don't see -- runoff and waste from farms, growing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, fish disappearing from the oceans.

This change underscores both the successes and the limits of the "first generation" of environmental law and regulation. Starting with the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970, Americans for the first time began to grapple seriously with the environmental havoc wrought by the industrial revolution.

We've made undeniable progress since then, as Gregg Easterbrook and other writers have documented. Our air and water are cleaner. This would be a good day, in fact, for environmentalists and their business antagonists not to indulge in the usual doomsday talk. What we've learned since the first Earth Day is that ecological calamity isn't inevitable, that the damage we do to nature is often reversible, and that we can curb pollution without wrecking our economy.

Republicans still cling to the myth that a clean environment is a luxury we can't afford, hence their refusal to take climate change seriously. And some environmental activists evidently believe that alarmism in the defense of ecological health is no vice. If the idea is to shake Americans out of their "denial" about global warming, the opposite seems to be happening. Polls show the public is growing more skeptical about the hazards of climate change. Allegations (unfounded, as it tuns out) that British university researchers cooked climate data in an excess of environmental correctness haven't helped.

Even discounting for some hyperbole, however, the new environmental challenges are real enough. Unlike the great industrial cleanup, which focused on specific "point sources" of pollution like smokestacks and drainage pipes, we're faced today with damage from "non-point" sources like fields and hog farms, high-tech fishing fleets and the millions of cars, dry cleaners, lawnmowers and even cows pumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The top-down, "command and control" regulations of the first generation of environment activism could not cope effectively with these new problems. That's why PPI back in the 1990s started advocating a "second generation" of policy tools for dealing with new and more diffuse ecological challenges. Examples include innovations like the Toxic Release Inventory, which allows citizens to find out about health risks posed by local polluters; market incentives like carbon pricing and the cap-and-trade system first set up in 1990 to combat acid rain; and "civic environmentalism," which decentralizes decisions about, say, how to manage habitat vital to endangered species, from Washington regulators to local landowners.

Now it appears as though we're heading into a third phase, in which environmental and energy policy merge into one. The environmental movement traditionally has aimed at mitigating the impact of industrial society on nature. Now we're talking about something truly revolutionary - a shift from a dirty economy powered by cheap fossil fuels to a clean, low-carbon economy. This prospect beckons not only because of the environmental benefits, which would be large, but also because of the potential for immense economic and security gains. It would enable the United States to reduce its costly dependence on foreign oil suppliers, many of whom don't have our best interests at heart. And it opens up broad new avenues for economic innovation and growth in the development of clean technology and fuels.

Some will use Earth Day to depict America as an energy wastrel and despoiler of the earth. Instead of donning hair shirts, progressives ought to stress America's opportunity to lead the world toward its clean energy future.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.