Planet in the balance

The first Earth Day, held April 22, 1970, started an effort that is still moving forward. The United States created the Environmental Protection Agency later that year, which led to legislation requiring cleaner air and water. Almost four decades later, here’s a glimpse at how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go.

— McClatchy Tribune

Land use

On the first Earth Day, concern about land use wasn’t a priority. Throughout the 1960s, a desire to preserve green spaces was classified as “conservation,” with concerned citizens focused on preserving parks and recreational areas. But in the past few decades, we’ve recognized that it’s crucial to pay attention to land use, from agriculture to urban landscapes. We’ve begun to see land use as an environmental issue — and to consider the impact of agriculture, population density and development on wetlands, grasslands, forests and other ecosystems.

By the numbers

The world’s predicted population by 2050:

9.2 billion

Portion of the world’s population that lives in the United States:

5 percent

Portion of land area in the United States used for agriculture:

About 40 percent


As U.S. population grows and household population decreases, more and more houses are covering the land. Land is converted for development at twice the rate of population growth. Most of that is for “sprawl” development — roads, shops and houses in suburban and rural areas.

Air quality

Air quality was a visible problem by 1970. Smog had been obscuring the skylines of cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles for decades. But dirty air wasn’t just an American problem. In August 1970, smog sent more than 8,000 Tokyo residents to the hospital in five days. In Venice, dirty air caused damage to the ancient Greek bronze horses in St. Mark’s Square. A strengthened Clean Air Act was one of the changes the first Earth Day brought about. Air quality has improved nationwide, but a number of cities still don’t meet government standards.

By the numbers

Energy-related carbon emissions worldwide:

29 billion metric tons

Trees needed to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from one U.S. car each year: 240

Asians who die each year from the effects of air pollution: 1.5 million

People worldwide who live in countries with pollution levels above the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards: 103 million

Approximate number of coal plants built every week in China: 2


China has overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Beijing, the site of the 2008 Summer Games, is so polluted that athletes were concerned for their health.

Waste, landfills

By 1970, America’s consumer culture was expanding, and Americans were discarding things at alarming levels: 7 million cars, 100 million tires, 20 million tons of paper and 48 billion cans every year. Philadelphia and San Francisco expected to run out of landfill space before 1972. Today, Americans recycle about five times more than in 1970. Landfills are fewer and better-managed, though also much larger. Still, we manage to keep only one-third of our waste out of the trash heap. And in an age full of electronic gadgets, “e-waste” is a growing problem.

By the numbers

Average waste produced by Americans each day:

1970: 3.3 pounds per person

2006: 4.6 pounds per person

Average waste recycled in the United States:

1970: 6.6 percent

2006: 32.5 percent

Average amount of paper products recycled in the U.S. today: 56 percent

Average amount of “e-waste” discarded in the U.S.: 1.9 million to 2.2 million tons

Average amount not recycled, landing permanently in landfills:

About 82 percent

In Texas: 45

In New Jersey, which tops the list: 117

In North Dakota: 0

Energy, transport

That first Earth Day, pollution was a bigger concern than energy. U.S. oil production peaked that year, and efficiency — in building and in transportation — wasn’t a priority. Today, Americans use more energy than ever before. But we’re also learning new, cleaner ways to generate it. Renewable energy is the smallest portion of energy sources — only 6 percent — but it’s also the fastest-growing sector. We’re finding more responsible ways to consume energy, too. We have more fuel-efficient cars, homes and appliances.

By the numbers

Number of vehicles worldwide:

1970: 246 million

2008: 600 million

Number of vehicles in the United States:

1970: 111.2 million

2005: 247.4 million

Transportation’s share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 27 percent

Average American household electricity use:

1970: 6,367 kilowatt hours per year

2004: 10,660 kilowatt hours per year


In 1975, new cars were made with catalytic converters, helping vehicles meet tougher U.S. emissions standards. Today’s new cars pollute about 90 percent less than their 1970s counterparts.