Not long after Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, our nation rallied to protect the Earth.

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 threatened the 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 from the electorate, 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 39 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.

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.

In addition, state governments enjoy improved environmental protection and enforcement capabilities. Environmental politics are so pervasive, many believe the movement is stronger, better managed, better informed and far more influential than 40 years ago. Its strength grows each year because public knowledge and understanding grow each year.

What started with 20 million Americans almost four decades ago will engage more than a billion people from across the world today.
That’s progress, but there’ still plenty more to do.

This Earth Day, Friday, April 22, think of what you can do to make our world a better place.