By Michael Coren
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(CNN) -- In 1969, the Cuyahoga River flowing past Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire and burned noxious sludge from steel mills, paint factories and sewage plants. In California, an offshore drilling rig stained the coast of Santa Barbara with more than 3 million gallons of crude oil. The skies of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to the nation's steel industry, were so dark with soot that drivers sometimes had to turn on their headlights during the day.
This was America at the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In 2005, Americans will celebrate a far different country, if they celebrate Earth Day at all.
Outdoor air pollution is at its lowest level in 30 years. Government agencies report air pollution is down 48 percent, despite a 42 percent rise in energy consumption. And water quality, while problematic, has improved across the nation. The federal government has spent $80 billion on water quality since passing the Clear Water Act in 1972.
"Rivers, streams and lakes are measurably cleaner than they were before the Clean Water Act, but we still have a long way to go," said Bob Irvin of the World Wildlife Fund, the world's largest privately funded conservation organization.
Endangered species from bald eagles to alligators in Florida's waterways also are clawing their way back from the edge of extinction.
The spectacular ecological successes of the last 30 years have brought environmentalism into the American mainstream, but the movement is vastly different than the one that was gaining political and moral clout in the United States more than three decades ago.
"I think in the 1970s, environmental protection was driven by people who believed in strong advocacy and focused political pressure," said Paul Portney, economist and president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan institute studying the environment. "It was not so much a mainstream value. Today, it's hard to find some one who doesn't care about the environment."
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in 2004 found only 5 percent of those surveyed said the environment was not an important issue in the presidential election. At least 60 percent said it was either very or extremely important. (A truly global problem)
Still, the struggle between conservation and economic development has only escalated. The debate now centers on how -- and to what the degree -- the United States will balance protection of the environment with economic concerns. While legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 are embedded in many Americans' idea of government responsibility for the environment, these laws are being revisited.
The White House is promoting the controversial Clear Skies Act of 2003, which the Environmental Protection Agency claims will provide health benefits cheaper, faster and more reliably than the current Clean Air Act. A number of groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council contest this, saying Clear Skies will only weaken and delay health protections by releasing more toxic mercury emissions and tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. (Policies on some key issues)
Environmentalism has also gone global.
Carter Roberts, chief conservation officer for the World Wildlife Fund, said that the strain on natural resources threatens environmental progress as the world strives to match America's prosperity.
Humans have already exceeded the planet's ability to sustain their level of consumption, known as Earth's carrying capacity, by about 20 percent, Carter claimed. That figure will climb steeply as more than 2 billion people living in India, China and other developing nations raise their standard of living.
In the short term, he said, habitat loss, invasive species and resource scarcity pose the gravest threats. In the long term, climate change and industrialization will place enormous burdens on nations hoping to balance conservation and economic growth. (Clues to climate's future)
Environmental groups' approach to these problems has changed over the last few decades. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, most environmental gains were made on the policy and legislative front. As Washington has turned chilly toward further regulation, environmental groups have shifted their focus to the private sector where changes could profit both businesses and the environment.
"Right now, the most promising areas for us are really working with corporations constructively to change their practices," Roberts said. "Companies are increasingly predicting a future in which resources are scarce."
He cites FedEx's coming fleet of hybrid vehicles as an example of the way these groups are tackling the problem. The World Wildlife Fund also is working with the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province of Aceh to import certified timber and avoid deforestation of that nation's rainforest.
But some problems offer no easy solutions.
" I think climate change is really the biggest problem facing the U.S, and in some sense, the biggest problem facing the world." - Paul Portney
Portney at Resources for the Future said problems like the loss of biodiversity and climate change are irreversible. (The science debate)
"I think climate change is really the biggest problem facing the U.S., and in some sense, the biggest problem facing the world," he said. "We are contributing to the carbon dioxide ... that the world will have to live with for a long time."
Although some countries are clamping down on greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, the United Nations predicts that the next century could bring temperature increases as high as 5.8 degrees Celsius (10.4 Fahrenheit). If trends continue, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will double from pre-Industrial Revolution levels (280 parts per million) within 50 years, according to the journal Science.
Scientists cannot forecast the exact severity of global warming, but grave concern in the scientific community is reflected in the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at curbing global warming by cutting emissions, which was ratified by 145 nations and went into effect this February. The U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 2001 arguing it failed to appreciably slow global warming and include developing nations.
Not everyone agrees that these problems weigh on the mind of the average American.
"What's high on the radar for environmental organizations has virtually nothing to do with what people think," said Jerry Taylor, policy specialist and director of Natural Resource Studies for the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank. "If you dig deeper, and ask what environmental problems are you concerned about, water from the tap and the local dump tend to outpace global warming. People, when they think about environmental quality, think about it in their own town."
Taylor said storm water runoff and decaying municipal sewage systems are the country's next great environmental challenge. "It will cost billions to fix it, but unfortunately for environmentalists, it's not a very sexy problem," he said.
The celebration for Earth Day this year is likely to be far more subdued compared to the 1970s when 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and communities annually participated in events.
Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, when more than 150 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, interest in Earth Day has declined steadily among Americans. It may be due to a shifting political climate or, as Taylor suggests, because Earth Day has been institutionalized by corporations and advocacy groups as to become virtually meaningless.
Still, some see value in marking the occasion.
"Earth Day is a reminder that if we apply ourselves and pass laws, write regulations and implement them, the public sector can accomplish a hell of a lot," said Portney.