Before the environmental movement took root in this country, factories could - and did - discharge toxic chemicals up their smokestacks and out their drainpipes.
Developers filled in marshes; people buried or burned their garbage; cities ran sewer lines carrying untreated waste into lakes, rivers and oceans.
Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisc., a longtime conservationist who had waged unsuccessful campaigns to ban DDT as well as phosphates in detergents, finally connected with an issue that aroused widespread outrage: the 1969 blowout on an oil platform off Santa Barbara, Calif. At the time it had been the nation's worst such disaster, spewing nearly 100,000 barrels of crude oil onto pristine beaches and killing thousands of birds, dolphins and sea lions.
With a small group of fellow advocates Sen. Nelson began planning a day of environmental "teach-ins," modeled after Vietnam War protests, and on April 22, 1970, the nation celebrated Earth Day for the first time. Some 20 million people turned out for rallies in cities and on college campuses across the country in what today is widely recognized as the birth of the U.S. environmental movement.
The next year celebrations spread, and in the ensuing decades the cause has continued to grow.
Today some 500 million people in 175 countries are expected to participate in Earth Day activities that focus on a range of problems and issues that either didn't exist back at the time of that seminal celebration 42 years ago or were well below everyone's radar: Global warming causing polar ice caps to shrink, sea levels to rise and violent storms to intensify; potential water contamination from the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" process used to release oil and natural gas; concerns about the effect on crops and other species by genetic engineering and monoculture farming, to name a few.
Back then, issues were less complex: Putting poisons into the air and water was bad. Solutions were therefore simpler.
Within months of the first Earth Day, Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed into law a bill creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, setting the stage for such landmark legislation as the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and enforcement of tough standards that for the first time empowered the federal government to protect its citizens' quality of life by controlling pollution.
Not surprisingly, despite a seemingly common sense approach to new legislation, the energy industry and many manufacturers strenuously resisted any such regulation back then, and similar interests are fighting additional environmental controls today.
In light of today's faltering economy it's not surprising that shortsighted opponents to new regulation are gaining traction, but Sen. Nelson - who went on to become counselor for The Wilderness Society in 1981 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 in recognition of his environmental work - had the proper perspective, commenting, "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around."
Most responsible manufacturers embrace this concept and also understand they can save money by recycling and lowering their energy costs.
Today, some on the political right call for rolling back environmental regulations and the long-term good they do in the interest of short-term economic expediency. While it is all well and good to try to make the regulatory process more efficient and reduce unnecessary red tape, it is wrong to scapegoat environmental protection as the enemy of progress. Americans won't tolerate it.
Sen. Nelson, who died in 2005, also identified a source of all environmental problems: Overpopulation. As the population grows it will become increasingly difficult for the Earth's natural resources to meet the demand and for the environment to deal with the pollutants produced. The need for conservation will grow ever more important. Population control must become a greater priority for the international community.
"The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become," Sen. Nelson observed.
We are confident that his message of the original Earth Day continues to resonate and that when it comes to attitudes about protecting the environment the tide has permanently turned - even if it continues to rise because of climate change.