Why Care about the Environment?

by Phil Anderson

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -man- acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” Rachel Carson author of Silent Spring

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” John Muir

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. There was so much oil and flammable chemicals floating on the river that it could burn. I saw this river when I worked on the US Steel ore boats in the early 1970s and went up the Cuyahoga to unload. The only resemblance to a river was the fact that it was a flowing liquid. The slimy tan muck stirred up black and oily in the wake of the tug boats. Nothing appeared alive in this open chemical sewer. Another similar experience was when we unloaded in South Chicago and had to use hot water to hose down the deck. In the brief time it took to unload, an oily film had settled out of the air onto the deck. One can only imagine what we were breathing. These experiences made me understand the need for environmental protection.

One wonders why protecting and preserving the natural world is such a contentious issue. Why do people who advocate for the environment engender so much animosity? One would think everyone would want to maintain the viability and health of Mother Earth. After all we do eat, drink, and breath the products of the earth. It might be a good idea to keep them in a safe, consumable condition. But this is not the case. One of the most successful divide-and-conquer tactics for Republicans is to attack environmental protection. 

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the disposal of wastes of all kinds was totally uncontrolled or regulated. Businesses, cities, and individuals did whatever was cheapest and easiest without regard to consequences. Factories regularly discharged toxic chemicals directly into rivers. Cities did the same with human and industrial sewage. Garbage of all kinds, including hazardous waste, was simply dumped in holes and buried. Widespread burning of coal made breathing the air in most cities unpleasant and hazardous to health.

By the 1960’s environmental problems had become so bad, and so obvious, everyone could see the results. Cities were chocked with smog, rivers were strange colors, and industrial smoke stacks spewed black smoke. You didn’t need scientific studies to know we had made garbage dumps out of our air, water, and land. This pollution caused many health problems in humans including chronic respiratory diseases, lead poisoning, and cancers. 

Public pressure led to sensible efforts to reduce and prevent pollution. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was created. The Clean Air Act was passed by Congress in 1970. It required the EPA to set national standards for healthy levels of air pollutants. The Clean Water Act came in 1972. The act made it unlawful to dump pollution into navigable waters without a permit and sought to make rivers and lakes “fishable and swimmable.”  Other legislation targeted landfills, dumping of hazardous waste, use of pesticides and other chemicals.    

Current opponents of the EPA fail to remember –  or choose to ignore – the good that the EPA has done. The general public doesn’t remember this history either. They buy into the false narrative that environmental protection costs too much and kills jobs. But the EPA has largely been a success. Here are some examples.

Lead poisoning: Lead used to be widely used in paint and gasoline. The EPA  estimated 5,000 Americans were dying every year from heart disease linked to lead poisoning. Many young children had diminished intelligence because of lead exposure. After the EPA phased out leaded gasoline, the number of children with dangerous lead levels in their blood dropped from 88 percent in the late 1970s to less than 1 percent today. 

Automobile emissions:  Automobiles were a major cause of air quality problems in cities. But because of required pollution controls today’s vehicles are 99 percent cleaner. Many cities still have problems, but smog is much improved from the 1970’s 
Power plant emissions:  Because of EPA requirements new power plants are 90 percent cleaner than older plants. This is especially true for coal burning plants. Because of the Clean Air Act requirements, less pollution saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year. This saves trillions of dollars in healthcare costs.
Pesticides: As Rachel Carson documented in 1962, pesticides were killing many birds and fish. Other research proved that DDT, a common pesticide, caused cancer in people and persisted in ecosystems for decades. Bald Eagles that ingested DDT laid eggs with shells so weak that parents crushed them just by sitting on the nest. By 1963, less than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles survived. In 1972, the EPA banned DDT. Bald Eagle populations recovered and today eagles are common.
Hazardous waste: Until the 1970s, hazardous chemical waste was disposed of like ordinary trash. Unlined municipal landfills allowed toxic chemicals to seep into groundwater. There were thousands of such dumps. The Love Canal disaster was an example. Read about it at https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/love-canal-tragedy.html. These problems are ongoing but we do much better now than before EPA regulations. 

These success stories don’t matter to politicians devoted to anti-government posturing. The billion dollar industries that donate to their campaigns want to be free from environmental regulations. Donald Trump campaigned on eliminating the EPA. He appointed EPA  leadership that is denying the science, lowering standards, reversing former successful, sensible policies. It should be obvious that he is not acting in the best interests of most people. As John Muir pointed out over 100 years ago, all they care about is making money. But history has clearly shown that as long as there’s a buck to be made polluters will poison our shared resources. 

Like in 1970, only public pressure will stop greed from poisoning us all. Only a massive public uprising to elect Democrats will restore sensible protection of our natural resources. 

What can you do? See the League of Conservation Voters, Field Guide to Taking Back Wisconsin, http://conservationvoters.org/field-guide. 

Read the Audubon Society, Why We Need a Strong EPA, www.audubon.org/news/why-we-need-strong-epa.