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After Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 due to heavy pollution that flowed downriver, our nation rallied to protect the Earth.Christopher Fox Graham

The first Earth Day in 1970 attracted an estimated 20 million to celebrate. Back then, Lake Erie was dying and sewage plants, refineries, steel plants and paper mills in the Rust Belt threatened to choke off all the other Great Lakes.

Across the country, there was a profound feeling something had to be done. Dirty air, foul water and landscapes cluttered with debris made most Americans realize public health, and the quality of life their children would inherit, was in serious jeopardy.

With wide support, a variety of environmental laws made their way out of Congress in 1970 following the first Earth Day. Of the most notable, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and, perhaps the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history, the National Environmental Policy Act.

During the last 44 years, the nation has gradually learned that protecting public health and the environment reduces disease and improves quality of life. Thanks to this effort, the United States is a far better country to live in. We’ve learned that polluting industries can clean up their own pollution in a cost-effective way and that protecting the environment doesn’t mean sacrificing the country’s economic progress. On the contrary, economic progress may actually depend on the clean environment our laws now mandate. A healthy population wastes less on short-term and long-term medical treatment and contributes more to the nationwide workforce.

In fact, these days, most businesses want to be green. Integrating environmental protection into business plans from the outset pays dividends, especially in terms of energy cost savings, but also in terms of the goodwill such policies generate with customers.

Businesses adapt to what customers want, be it healthier foods, greener products or locally produced items with smaller carbon footprint. The strength of the green movement isn’t just in protests, activism and legislation, but in the small green paper rectangles we trade for goods and services.

What started with 20 million Americans more than four decades ago will engage more than a billion people in 192 countries this Tuesday, April 22. There’s still plenty more to do.


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