April 22, 2024, will be the 55th Earth Day. Let’s compare where we were on our sustainability journey in 1970, where we are in 2024, and where we’re headed for 2079 when we will have celebrated 55 more Earth Days.

In 1970, we filled our cars with leaded fuel; we mixed lead into “regular” gasoline to improve performance and suffered the consequences of polluted air and water. In 2024, we burn leaded fuel only in small aircraft, having phased out lead in gasoline for cars worldwide in 2021. Now, we’re starting to phase out even unleaded vehicle fuel. By 2079, we will have fully electric cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes — then rocket ships might be the only vehicles that will still burn fuel.

In 1970, after the United States demonstrated commercial nuclear power in the 1960s, people believed it could replace coal-fired power plants with electricity “too cheap to meter.” In 2024 the United States has over 90 nuclear reactors generating electricity; worldwide over 400 nuclear power plants operate in 32 countries. Now, the US is no longer building nuclear power plants, and we’re shutting down coal plants; instead, we’re generating electricity with solar cells and storing it in batteries. By 2079, we will have decommissioned all of our coal power plants and have a bigger and better solar-powered economy — then we can shut down our nuclear plants.

In 1970, eight years after the publication of Silent Spring brought the dangers of pesticides to public attention, the USDA finally banned DDT, but “spray first, think second” was the typical pest management practice. In 2024, “think first, spray last” integrated pest management practices are standard. Now, we are beginning to understand basic biological principles such as pesticide resistance and hormonal signaling. By 2079, we will have selective, effective, and safe pest control techniques — then, we can eliminate the use of glyphosate, atrazine, diazinon,
neonicotinoids, and the rest of the “dirty dozen” pesticides worldwide.

In 1970, books like “The Population Bomb” stoked fears of overpopulation (the United Nations projected that the world population would grow from 3.6 billion in 1970 to 6.5 billion by 2000), and Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for dwarf wheat that prevented global
starvation. In 2024, the world population is estimated at 8.1 billion, with 3.1 billion unable to afford a healthy diet. Now, we view food insecurity as a political problem of resource allocation rather than a technical problem of food production. By 2079, the world population may be more than 10 billion. But if our agricultural productivity continues to increase at 1.49% per year (as it has for decades), our global food supply will be even more secure – then we might tackle the injustices that prevent billions from eating well.

In 1970, Nathaniel Wyeth was working on his idea to sell carbonated beverages in plastic, with no plan for recycling. By 1973 he had received his patent for the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle; since then, trillions of these single-use plastic bottles have been produced in place of returnable and fully recyclable glass bottles and metal cans. In 2024, the plastic industry encourages a recycling symbol to be stamped on all plastics (just to raise awareness of recycling, not to show which plastics can actually be recycled). Now, governments are beginning to move from awareness to action on recycling. By 2079, companies will have other fully recyclable packaging materials to choose from in addition to glass and metal — then we can remove recycling symbols from PET and other plastics that can’t be fully recycled.

Few people who celebrated the first Earth Day will be around to celebrate the 110th. But the progress humanity has made in 55 years raises hope that there will still be people on Earth with reason to celebrate. And who really knows the future? If more of us pitch in and help, we can certainly accelerate our journey to sustainability in the next five and a half decades!

Fred Horch is principal adviser of Sustainable Practice. To receive expert action guides to help your household and organizations become superbly sustainable, visit SustainablePractice.Life and subscribe to “One Step This Week.”

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