Reflections on Earth Day

Sunday was a gorgeous East Tennessee spring day; it was a great day to reflect upon Earth Day. Earth Day is a worldwide event which promotes awareness of the importance of our environment and the things we do to insure its protection.

We are blessed in East Tennessee with natural beauty. Instances of serious environmental contamination are less common here than in some less fortunate regions. But this blessing also means that we have more to lose than some other places. In the memory of people alive today, we have lost chestnut trees and several species of mollusks. Hemlock trees may vanish from our forests during the lifetimes of today’s young adults.

The environment is very important both to our quality of life and to our economy. The beauty of our mountains, forests, and rivers is appreciated not only by local residents but by people who visit from all over the United States. Some of the best trout fishing in the world is right here in East Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail passes through seven First District counties. Many Tennessee First District citizens are employed by businesses that flourish because of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The existence of these businesses and jobs shows how, in East Tennessee, what is good for the environment can be good for the economy.

Unfortunately, the current leadership of our national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to be in a rush to weaken standards that took a long time and a lot of scientific research to put in place. The goal of the EPA is to preserve not only the beauty of our environment, but also to protect our health by assuring that our air, our water, and the soil in which we grow our food are free from harmful chemicals and contaminants. Clean air seems to be under particular assault: https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/brace-yourself-for-unhealthy-air-the-trump-administration-weakens-clean-air-protections

I have no doubt that through careful evaluation, the EPA can find ways for the agency to do its job more efficiently and effectively. But we must remember that going backwards is not progress and that it can be much easier to cause damage than to undo it. When the potential harm to the environment and our health is irreversible, we should proceed with special caution. As a physician, I know that when hospitals set out to improve, it is not acceptable to sacrifice the quality of healthcare in the process. The same principle of preserving quality while enhancing operations should apply when we set out to improve government agencies like the EPA.