Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thoughts from the Environmental Movement

The environmental movement has reached middle age. The widespread acceptance of the validity of the environmental movement was marked in 1970 by the first Earth Day in April and by the founding of the US EPA in December of that year. Yet, 1970 was not the beginning of the environmental movement that happened in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the height of the post war industrial era. Fires occurred on the Cuyahoga River in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. The fires are believed to have been caused by vast oil slicks on the river. The 1952 fire caused over 1.5 million dollars in damage, but today we recall only the small and short lived fire of 1969. The time was right, the environmental movement had had been embraced by the country. On August 1, 1969, Time magazine reported on the fire and on the condition of the Cuyahoga River. The magazine stated:

“Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays". . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.”

When we see today’s environmental issues and concerns we are alarmed and forget the dreadful state of the environment 40 years ago. Not only was the Cuyahoga in terrible shape, countless rivers and streams were virtually dead zones. We have come so far that even with the US population increasing from 200 to 300 million people our air is cleaner, our water is cleaner and our soils less contaminated. We have much to celebrate and much work yet to do.

A family of wild turkeys has parked themselves in our yard and the back meadow is filled with black birds. While trying to figure out if the black birds are crows, ravens or black birds I am reminded of the bird watcher and author Rachel Carson. Her book, Silent Spring, is widely credited as beginning the environmental movement. From the US EPA web site:

“(M)any environmental ideas first crystallized in 1962. That year saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, first in serial form in the New Yorker and then as a … best seller. This exhaustively researched, carefully reasoned, and beautifully written attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides was not exactly light reading. Yet it attracted immediate attention and wound up causing a revolution in public opinion. Skeptics then and now have accused Carson of shallow science, but her literary genius carried all before it. Followers flocked to Carson's cause--rendered all the more sacred by her premature death in 1964. Suddenly, everywhere people looked, they saw evidence of nature's spoilation. Concern over air and water pollution spread in widening eddies from the often-forgotten core of the movement: a highly detailed and intellectually challenging book about commercial pesticides.”

It is difficult for someone of my age and inclinations (having worked for the US EPA in the 1970’s) to think of DDT without thinking of Silent Spring. Though it is often thought that Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use, with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem. As Eric Hoffer points out in his book, “True Believer” mass movements can never be moderate and rational they attract followers by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change. We are a nation of over sprayers. We figuratively and literally take the Raid can and spray a stream of bug spray at the offending specimen until we kill it by poisoning or drowning. Moderate, responsible action seems impossible for us, but that is the skill we must learn as responsible stewards of this earth and as humane and concerned citizens of the planet. We must balance concern for the earth as measured by whatever index suites your world view with the needs of the lesser developed world to escape poverty and disease. What is the point of saving the earth if not for mankind? For an upbeat look at progress made in the fight for a cleaner planet see “Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, Fourteenth Edition” by Steven E. Hayward. It is worth reading in these challenging times.

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