April 22, 1970 -- As pollution clouds over many of the nation's larger cities and the California coast continues to feel the effects of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, tens of thousands of people rally for the environment in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, giving birth to what has become known as Earth Day.
And while people still care about the environment, the passion of those early Earth Days is gone, according to Robert Mason, director of Temple's Environmental Studies program.
"To some degree, we're victims of our own success in dealing with some of the worst pollution excesses of the 1960s and 70s," says Mason. "Air quality has improved dramatically, and rivers like the Delaware and Hudson have experienced vast improvement, so the problems aren't as pressing and obvious as they were around 1970."
Today, Mason says, people tend to view crime and education as more pressing issues. "National opinion polls still show people are concerned about the environment, but it's not as salient as it once was. "There are still a lot of local issues like toxic hotspots and environmental justice issues that attract local attention, but not much nationally," he says. "Environmental issues nationally just don't attract the attention the way they used to."
Complacency is another reason, says Mason, who is also an associate professor of geography and urban studies at the University. As gas prices continue to remain affordable, "we tend not to be as concerned about energy efficiency as we were during the gas crises of the 1970s and early 1980s."
He warns, however, that as we celebrate the first Earth Day of the new millennium, there are still problems that need addressing, such as urban sprawl, global climate issues, and environmental issues outside the Unites States "which over time are going to be very critical." He points to the fact that much of the world's population doesn't have access to good, clean drinking water.
Mason remains optimistic about the future and predicts a resurgence in environmental interest. "It seems to work in cycles and I think the environment will have periods of greater interest," he says. "Sadly, one of the things that propels that interest is some sort of environmental disaster like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which spurred a lot of interest at the time of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day." He also believes that educating children on the environment in school will pay dividends in the future. "Our children are learning to be concerned about our environment, and I think in the future, we'll see an environmental conscience developing because of it."
To speak with Mason about the environment and the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, call him at his office, 215-204-4483, or call the Office of News and Media Relations at 215-204-7476.