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Ten years for Earth Day

In Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania, it's a cleanup drive. In Sacramento, California , it's an educational program on citizens' environmental rights. In Anchorage, Alaska, it's the grand opening of the Alternative Energy Resource Center. All over the United States people are getting together to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow. And more power to them.

But perhaps the real news is the degree to which many Americans have begun to celebrate Earth Day every day in the decade since 1970's two watershed events for the US environment: the signing of the National Environmental Policy Act and the launching of Earth Day. Each individual act of respect for the natural world, each individual measure of conservation, each decision against dirtying the air, land, or water -- these are part of the decade's central legacy. It is a consciousness of the environment and the need to preserve it for the good of all, a consciousness now extending to outer space, as in the Moon Treaty discussed in the editorial below. It is a readiness to consider the environment at every turn not unlike the hard-won acceptance of constant vigilance on civil rights.

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Just as every lapse back toward insensitivity on civil rights has to be resisted, so does every lapse back toward irresponsible exploitation of the environment. As Earth Day '80 arrives there are moves to weaken clean-air standards that must be rejected. And there are voices against fully addressing such newly identified hazards as acid rain, the loss of cropland, and the dumping of toxic waste that must not be allowed to prevail.

Not that present environmental regulations cannot be improved in terms of reducing overlapping, improving clarity, and concentrating on essentials. Such reforms have been ordered by the White House, and the President ought to ensure follow-through.

But it would be short-sighted to allow energy, inflation, or any other problem to undercut the thrust for environmental protection. It is not wholly a matter of quality of life, important as this is. There is a dollars-and-cents advantage. For example, according to the tenth annual report of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, figures show that the annual benefits realized in 1978 from measured improvements in air quality since 1970 could be "reasonably valued" at $21.4 billion. Of this, $17 billion represented reductions in mortality and disease, $2 billion in costs of soiling and cleaning , $0.7 billion in increased agricultural production, $0.9 billion in prevention of corrosion and other damage, $0.6 billion in rises in property values.

As for the suggestion that environmental regulations cost jobs, the National Academy of Sciences found quite the contrary -- that 30 new jobs were in effect created for every job that was eliminated as a result of the regulations. According to Data Resources, Inc., the unemployment rate would have been higher every year since 1970 -- and on to 1986 -- without the environmental controls. In 1980 and 1981 the figures indicate that some 400,000 people will have jobs who otherwise would not have them. In these years also, says Data Resources, the gross national product will be higher than it would have been without environmental controls, though the projections are that this will not always be the case.

It is hard to place a money value on matters such as health and state of mind that are seen to be affected by environmental standards. But the reason to celebrate Earth Day and all it represents goes beyond such measures anyway. It lies in the growth of humanity's ethical sense to embrace not only personal relationships and social systems but the whole living world to which human beings belong. Are we our brother's keeper? Are we our environment's keeper? The questions are linked, and each generation will be inescapably tested by how it answers them.


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