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Point of View

by Keith Laughlin

he day was April 22, 1970. I had just finished my freshman year of college. Paul McCartney left The Beatles; Apollo 13 made it safely back to earth; the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War; and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson had a really good idea: Earth Day.

Take one day to shine a light on the environment and teach people how to treat our planet better.

Back then, on the first Earth Day, our biggest environmental concern was the unregulated pollution released directly into our air and water.

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted it caught fire. A friend from Chattanooga, Tenn., once told me that in the '70s he had to change his shirt in the middle of the day; the air was so dirty that his white shirt would turn gray.

Keith Laughlin on the trail

Keith Laughlin on the trail.

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A lot has changed in the last 40 years.

We've made great progress in reducing many of the worst threats to our air, our land and our water. We should be proud of what we've accomplished. But looking ahead another 40 years, a lot remains to be done.

At the top of today's Earth Day agenda is global climate change. Without action, disruptions to our planet's climate threaten us with immeasurable economic and environmental costs in the decades ahead.

But we also face an environmental threat of a very different kind—one that we didn't imagine on that first Earth Day. In the last 50 years we have constructed our built environment—the places we live—around the automobile.

In too many places, we have made it difficult—or even dangerous—to walk or bike. As a result, many of us drive a lot more, and walk and bike a lot less than our parents and grandparents did. And we're seeing—and feeling—the cost.

Presently, the biggest threat to our health is the obesity epidemic that affects two-thirds of our population. This epidemic costs our economy $100 billion a year in avoidable health care costs.While those numbers are sobering, the situation can be remedied. Across America, we are seeing growing support for creating safe places to walk and bike where people can once again build physical activity into their daily lives.

The remarkable thing is that by making it easier to walk or bike we can help to solve two problems at once. When we replace the gasoline in our cars with the energy in our bodies, we burn calories, not carbon. And by replacing a short car trip with a bike trip, we can simultaneously address the threat of global climate change and the obesity epidemic.

With one simple act, we can all contribute to a future with healthier places for healthier people. And that means a healthier planet for us all.

Happy 40th Anniversary, Earth Day.

Happy Trails,

Keith Laughlin

Green Issue 2010


Keith Laughlin is the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C.Look for him outside enjoying Earth Day—and every day—on local rail-trails like the Capital Crescent Trail.

Follow him on Twitter @KeithRTC.


Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037