In 1970, year of the first Earth Day, lead was still a gasoline additive. Pollution from industrial and municipal facilities was largely unregulated. Commentators likened breathing in Portland to smoking a pack a day. Most environmental laws hadn’t even been conceived.

How is the Northwest doing now? Obviously, we’ve cleaned up some—but we also face newer, more global challenges, such as the rising accumulation of greenhouse gases and newly troubling chemicals such as PBDEs. Here are few thoughts on the region’s success stories and places where we need to get cracking.

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  • Energy use "scores" worst: In 1970, the problem of climate change wasn’t even on the radar. Now, it’s arguably the dominant environmental concern of the new century—along with its cousin, energy use. The region’s per capita energy use has been stuck at the same high level since the 1970s, and, despite high gas prices, increased in 2004. The good news is that there is growing momentum to implement the clean-energy solutions that will help us improve our record—at a profit. One recent piece of evidence: Washington’s passage of the clean-car bill.

    Orcas and sea otters rebound: Sea otters, hunted to local extinction by 1911, were re-introduced to the Olympic coast in 1969 and 1970, and numbered 743 at last count. BC’s sea otters have also multiplied. Orcas have tentatively rebounded in both Puget Sound and British Columbia.

    Logging declines: Logging has declined by roughly 44 percent in Washington and 57 percent in Oregon since 1970. In the areas monitored by the Scorecard the pace of clearcutting—the most ecologically destructive form of logging—has plummeted by roughly 50 percent in Washington and Oregon, and by 30 percent in BC since the 1970s.

    Population growth slows: Since 1970, when the global "population bomb" first drew attention, the Pacific Northwest’s population has almost doubled, from 8.3 million to 15.3 million people. But growth has slowed in recent years, the Northwest’s family size has diminished remarkably, and the teen birth rate has fallen by more than half.

    Smart growth catches on: While sprawl remains the predominant development pattern in Cascadia, the region’s seven largest cities have shown improvement in the past decade (all cities ain’t equal, though; Vancouver, BC, is by far the leader).

    New toxics on the rise: The legacy of contamination that pollutants such as DDT, PCBs, and leaded gasoline is gradually diminishing. But newer pollutants such as PBDEs are at their highest levels ever.

    Sustainability is becoming cool. That’s what some are saying, anyway, including Grist‘s Chip Giller in this op-ed(you’ve got to love an article which pairs "environment" and "bling") and a Christian Science Monitor article on "green gadgets."

    I think it can be argued both ways, but for today, I’ll go with the hopeful version: that there is a dawning awareness that environment is connected to economy is connected to quality of life, that the health of people depends on the health of their places, and that the old modes of measuring progress need to be updated to match our aspirations.


    P.S. For more details on the trends mentioned, see here.