George Washington Bridge through heavy smog in New Jersey and New York.Heavy smog across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan to New JerseyPhoto: EPA

Burning automobile batteries! Toxic runoff! Smog thick as Zach Galifianakis‘s mighty beard!

It’s 2010, and this is the world we would have inherited had not President Richard M. Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into law forty years ago today.

A trove of images released by the EPA to commemorate the agency’s 40th anniversary depicts the world of the 1960’s, a time when China-like levels of environmental degradation were widespread across America. At a time when the powers of the EPA are once again under assault, it’s worth contemplating the alternative to a government capable of acting in the people’s interests to prevent environmental destruction: urban environments so polluted that their sorry state was a precipitating factor in America’s flight to the suburbs.

Hit the “next” button, below, to roll through a gallery of what was – and could have been.