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Column: Earth Day


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On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans paused for a day to celebrate our planet and press for the urgent actions needed to preserve and protect it. As we observe this 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we once again reflect on the necessity of a clean and safe environment, celebrate the successes of the last four decades, and consider the long way we still must go to achieve the goals laid out that day.

In Wisconsin, we also stop to remember and honor one of our most prominent citizens.

Earth Day was born out of the passion of Gaylord Nelson. His life was one of service -- from the Pacific theater during World War II, to the State House as a State Senator and Governor, and to Washington D.C. where he served Wisconsin as a U.S. Senator for nearly 20 years.

When Gaylord came to Washington, he did so with a mission to bring environmental causes to the forefront of the national debate. He believed that the cause of environmentalism needed as much attention as national defense. For his first years in the Senate, his cause was lonely. In 1966, his bill to ban the pesticide DDT garnered no cosponsors.

Gaylord knew that only with the grassroots support of regular Americans, could the environmental agenda rise to prominence. His idea for Earth Day came from the student teach-ins of the 1960s, but his cause inspired people across boundaries of age, race and location. This year, more than one billion people around the world will come together in the same way they did 40 years ago.

In a speech on that historic day in 1970, Gaylord noted that his goal was not just one of clean air and water, but also "an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures." He told the crowd that America could meet the challenge through our technology. The unanswered question was, he said, "Are we willing?"

That question was answered with a resounding yes. That year saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act. In 1972, six years after Gaylord Nelson stood alone on his proposed DDT ban, its use was ended. Later years would bring better protection of drinking water, emissions and efficiency standards for cars, programs to cleanup brownfields sites, and the protection and preservation of our forests, rivers, mountains and oceans.

Despite that progress -- and I imagine Gaylord would be the first to note this -- we still have much work ahead of us. We must use this anniversary to commit to another environmental decade. The needs of 40 years ago -- cleaner water, cleaner air, more protection of our lands -- are still here, but the next challenge we must face is climate change.

From lower lake levels, to more invasive species, the consequences of unchecked climate change could be devastating to the people of Wisconsin. Climate change isn't just a threat, it is also an opportunity. Structured correctly, the solutions to slowing climate change can also speed up our economic recovery.

Remarkable research and development is happening today in Wisconsin -- on products for cleaner water, advanced battery technology, and using waste from farms and forests to make advanced biofuels. We have companies developing products to harness the power of the sun to replace traditional interior lighting, retrofitting heavy-duty trucks into hybrids, and manufacturing energy-efficient hot water heaters.

In Congress, legislative work to address climate change is ongoing. With the right mixture of requirements and incentives, we can achieve a policy that reduces our dependence on foreign oil, cuts greenhouse gas emissions, lowers prices at the pump and on the electricity bill, and creates good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.

We do not have to choose between the environment and the economy; between jobs and solving climate change. Gaylord Nelson made this point over and over again. He once wrote that "all economic activity depends upon the…air, water, soil, forest, minerals, wetlands, rivers, lakes, oceans, wildlife habitats, and scenic beauty." These, he said, "are the accumulated capital resources of the nation. Take them away and what you have left is a wasteland."

On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, while we remember the pioneering sprit of Gaylord Nelson, we must honor his legacy by turning words into action.

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