In the thick of the struggle to achieve any progress on environmental issues, it’s easy to despair. The political world can appear to be dominated by preening nimrods who value wildlife only as targets. Plutocrats with bottomless bank accounts call the shots. Nothing seems to change.
In retrospect, though, amazing changes have happened, and it’s worth bringing some of these success stories to mind as a source of strength in the day-to-day struggle.
1. Peregrine falcons now routinely do their 200-mile-an-hour headfirst dive off skyscrapers from Fifth Avenue in New York, traveling to Third Avenue in Seattle. But just 40 years ago, they were almost extinct. They came back—as did ospreys, cormorants, and a host of other bird species—because Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, led to a ban on DDT. This broadly destructive pesticide had been causing a fatal thinning of eggshells in many bird species, among other unintended effects. Carson’s book put an end to an era of indiscriminate and unexamined use of pesticides and herbicides.
2. The bald eagle, our national bird, was down to just 417 nesting pairs in the 1970s—and DDT was once again a culprit. Passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 contributed significantly to recovery, and by the time bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, the population had rebounded to more than 11,000 nesting pairs.
3. Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until a dog brought home a freshly killed specimen one day in 1981 in Meeteetse, Wyo. That led to the discovery of a remnant population of several dozen individuals. Working under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a captive breeding program. More than 1,000 black-footed ferrets now survive in 18 wild populations around the Mountain States.
4. Just 20 years ago, remote islands around the world seemed to be permanently infested with rats, goats, pigs, cats, and other species introduced by early colonial navigators. These pests often consigned other species to extinction. But in recent years, the island rewilding movement has recaptured many more islands for its original inhabitants. Rat Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is the latest such victory, having recently become free of rats for the first time since 1780. This year Hawadax Island, as it’s now known, is full of nesting sea birds.
5. In the 1960s, dark, stinking clouds of smokestack pollution were commonplace in American cities, and vehicles added leaded gasoline and other emissions to this toxic brew. That began to change with the Clean Air Act, which became law in 1963 and has been steadily improved with amendments over the years. The 1990 amendments alone now prevent 160,000 deaths from fine-particle pollution and 4,000 from ozone pollution in a single year. To get a sense of what life would be like without that law, try breathing the air in modern Beijing.
6. In the 1960s, it was routine for businesses to dump 55-gallon drums of toxic chemicals into rivers—I witnessed it—on top of the daily load of floating sewage from huge municipal waste pipes. Massive fish kills were common. A few rivers even went up in flames. Because of cleanups mandated under the Clean Water Act of 1972, that all began to change. One result: A recent study of California rivers noted a 100-fold decrease in lead and a 400-fold drop in copper and cadmium. Also as a result of that law, fish and bird species are now flocking back to old habitats, and people are no longer horrified at the idea of swimming in urban waterways.
7. Researchers first reported in the 1970s that the refrigerants and aerosol propellants known as CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, were causing serious damage to the ozone layer high in the atmosphere. Skeptics, many of them from the industry, attacked the evidence and delayed action. But in 1985, a huge hole appeared in the ozone layer over Antarctica, with CFCs clearly to blame. The resulting alarm led to an international agreement to end CFC production by 1994.
8. At about the same time, the United States was struggling to find a solution to the acid rain problem that was killing forests and streams. Republicans in the George H.W. Bush administration, together with the Environmental Defense Fund, devised an ingenious solution called cap and trade, which set a steadily decreasing cap on the power plant emissions that mainly caused the problem. But instead of imposing government rules, cap and trade allowed the power companies to figure out how to meet that cap, often by buying or selling pollution rights. That reduced acid rain emissions by half, at a dramatically lower cost than anyone had believed possible. Cap and trade could now provide a model for dealing with climate change—if Republicans would just reclaim bragging rights to their own free market innovation.
9. It may seem odd to mention this in the middle of a brutal war for rhino horn, but one of conservation’s earliest success stories was the recovery of white rhinos from a single small breeding population of just a few hundred individuals at the end of the 19th century to more than 20,000 animals in the wild today. Saving the rhinos was the purpose of Africa’s first protected conservation area—Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa—and it provided the seed stock for repopulating white rhinos around southern Africa. If early conservationists could stop the killing back then, surely we can now.
10. Europe was the first continent to wipe out its megafauna, and it is now so crowded and overdeveloped that it’s hard to conceive of a wildlife recovery there. But a study by the group Rewilding Europe recently reported that many species are now coming back as farmers abandon marginal land all over the continent. Even wolves have begun to return to Germany and France and into the border countries of Belgium and the Netherlands.
This is of course only an incomplete list of environmental success stories. I welcome readers to suggest their own favorites. More important, readers should take heart from past successes and make them the model for winning the battles we face today.