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Goal for 2010: Pollution Prevention

WITH the approach of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, Americans need to remind themselves of the remarkable environmental progress of the last two decades. Our nation's environmental record should give every citizen a sense of confidence that is almost as important as the progress itself. The biggest difference between Earth Day in 1970 and Earth Day now is that it's become apparent that much more is at stake than we once thought. While the environmental degradation perceived in 1970 was widespread, it was viewed by many as a series of confined problems in their own communities. A nearby stretch of polluted river. A local lake dying because of too many nutrients. A littered highway. A burning garbage dump. A polluted airshed over a city where cars were operated with few, if any, pollution-control devices.

Today, much of our attention is focused on problems that have a global dimension. Many present unknown, as yet unseen, consequences that may threaten the habitability of our world as we know it - stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change, deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, and the extinction of species. By comparison with the problems we tackled in 1970, the problems ahead seem daunting indeed.

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For those who may doubt the progress we've made, it's helpful to take a look at what has happened over the last 20 years.

Earth Day 1970 spawned legislation by Congress, state legislatures, and local governments that has left a lasting legacy of undeniable achievement. The Cuyahoga River no longer is a fire hazard. Eutrophic lakes, their vital oxygen supplies restored, have been returning to life. A public that once tolerated roadside litter is now embracing recycling. Burning dumps are a thing of the past. And, while air in many major cities still fails to meet air-quality standards, the frequency and severity of those violations are much reduced.

We know today that it's possible to control pollution. Yet we also now recognize that controlling pollution is no longer sufficient. Controlling pollution will not be enough to protect our environment and the natural resources on which all human activity depends, including economic activity.

The simple truth is that we cannot regulate fast enough or well enough to keep up with the rising tide of pollution and wastes. As just one example, the Environmental Protection Agency's national inventory of toxic releases shows that about 50 billion pounds of volatile organic chemicals are released by industry into the environment each year; slightly less than 3 billion pounds of these chemicals are subject to control by the regulations of the EPA or state agencies.

It could be argued that it is not possible - technologically or financially - to clean up all wastes. Already, American industry spends billions of dollars annually to comply with pollution-control laws. Even at the present level of government regulation, those costs are going up, just as they are for every other cost associated with the disposal and treatment of wastes. Industry is learning that such costs can be prevented if the wastes are not created in the first place. When you prevent pollution, you don't have to pay to clean it up.

Earth Day 1970 instilled in our society an environmental awareness never seen before. We asked the question: Can pollution be controlled? With determination and ingenuity, we proved that it can. But in many situations, we have reached a point where controlling the last ounce of pollution coming from outfall pipes or factory chimneys will squeeze scarce financial resources that, as taxpayers, we might prefer to devote to education, housing, health care, or other worthy goals.

Our environmental challenges are not insurmountable. Each of us - thinking globally, acting globally - can help forestall the expenditure of money on problems that can be prevented by a change in the way we operate our manufacturing plants, heat our homes, drive our cars, select the products we buy, dispose of our household wastes. We can prevent pollution. Each of us can make a difference.

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If pollution prevention can be made part of our environmental ethic, as pollution control was on the first Earth Day, we - as citizens of this remarkable planet - can approach the next 20 years with confidence that our efforts will continue to bear fruit as productively as they have these past two decades.

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