Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

05. Healthy Lead

What: Tough, trendsetting environmental standards

Who: California activists, lawmakers and citizens

Impact: It's not surprising that the state would be home to many prominent thinkers on the environment, such as UCLA's Jared Diamond, whose bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed warned of eco-catastrophe. But California has led the nation in making tough love of the earth the law of the land as well. The state was the first to decouple the revenues electric utilities collect from the amount of power they produced, giving utilities an economic rationale to invest in conservation, and first to mandate that a small percentage of every customer's bill be set aside for investments in energy efficiency. In 1989, S. David Freeman, director of the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, proved that conservation measures alone could be used to replace the generating capacity of an existing power plant. In 1989, when voters in Sacramento mothballed the troubled, 913-megawatt Rancho Seco nuclear generating plant, Freeman replaced all of those lost megawatts with a host of energy-saving programs such as buying old and inefficient refrigerators, offering rebates for solar panel and wind energy projects, and planting thousands of trees to serve as a natural air conditioning system. Because California's economy is so gigantic, the standards we set often become de facto national regulations — which could happen again with the California Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires California to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide CO2 back to 1990 levels by 2025 and provides incentives for businesses to reduce emissions.

Eureka moment: The spark that ignited the modern environmental movement was the Santa Barbara oil spill of January 1969, an ecological disaster that blackened 35 miles of scenic coastland and killed thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. The first Earth Day took place the following April. So intense was the public's reaction that by the end of 1970, another Californian, President Richard M. Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency.

— Michael Zielenziger