Earth Day 1970 changed the world. Twenty-million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate their support for environmental protection. It was the largest demonstration in U.S. history, and it emphasized people’s desire for clean air and water.
In the wake of Earth Day 1970, countries around the globe recognized the desire for a healthy environment. They passed environmental laws like Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act and the U.S. Clean Water Act. They created environmental departments to oversee air and water protection and to improve industrial practices.
And it worked. Parts of the Great Lakes improved dramatically. The public become more involved in environmental protection. Activities like litter collection, recycling, and seeking out more green cleaning products became normal parts of our lives.
In the last few years, most of the environmental laws and departments created in Canada following Earth Day 1970 have been cut. We have seen unprecedented changes to legislation and the elimination or weakening of government science and monitoring programs.
When in court, judges used to tell polluters: “This is the law. My job is to enforce it, not to change it.”
Polluters got the message not to work harder to keep water clean, but to advocate for changes to the law to make polluting easier.
I knew that lobbying was increasingly influencing decisions about environmental law and policy, but I didn’t believe that politicians would ever rewrite our most important environmental laws. I certainly didn’t think this could happen while the public sat silently by.
I was wrong.
Virtually every single law that I relied on as an environmental lawyer has been re-written in the last 5 years. Federal laws. Provincial laws. Even the policies and procedural rules that tell civil servants how to implement the laws. Nothing is the same, and nothing is as strong as it was.
It isn’t 1970 anymore. Millions of people aren’t in the streets calling for better environmental protection. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care. It certainly doesn’t mean that the environment isn’t important anymore.
That’s one reason I’m taking Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s Participation Challenge this April. I’m looking for one moment between now and April 30th to capture my own connection to the earth. I think I have found it walking over the Don River in Toronto each day, watching as the spring runoff changes the river from brown to green to red.
Looking at the river is not going to save it. Thinking about how important water is to me is not going to bring back our environmental laws. I know that.
But I also need to remind myself why I care about water. That’s the secret to being able to do all of the other things I can do to protect water for present and future generations.