Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reclaiming Earth

It’s been 45 years since the first Earth Day. Look outside at the blue sky and clear water, and imagine life half a century ago. Look on YouTube, and you can find old films of rivers catching on fire from the sheer concentration of chemicals at the surface of the water. Find videos of Pittsburgh in heavy smog. Love Canal was associated with cancer. How did people allow this to happen? Wartime necessity demanded guns and materials. High marginal costs came at the expense of not just dollars, but public health. In the UK, London’s killer smogs of the 1950’s were a result of burning low-quality coal at home, a holdover from the war days. Suburban living offered an escape from city pollution. For the most part, environmental issues were handled at a local level, and by the initiative of local citizens wanting to protect quality of life. For one, President Eisenhower believed that river pollution was a state issue. Without environmental regulations, business and citizens entered a guns-versus-butter debate that sometimes required local sacrifice for economic good of full employment. | Even to social justice advocates of the early 1960’s, environmentalism was not an important onjective. In fact, focus on environmental issues was seen as a middle and upper class “distraction” from the civil rights issues of education, housing, employment, public accommodation, and voting. Along the decade, though, it became clear that environmentalism could cure aspects of injustice, including health disparities. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought attention to the unabated problem of pollution. What is the point of amenities if you can’t enjoy nature? Faced with the prospect of new or increased pollution regulations, a number of big-time polluters were willing to take low-cost measures such as smokestack filters, though they most certainly tried to shirk liability for previous damages. Lean manufacturing methods, developed in Japan, meant less waste and more reuse of raw materials, benefiting both the earth and the company’s bottom line. | Fast forward to today. To some greens, the deindustrialization of America is not the problem; it’s a solution. To some, the auto bailouts of GM and Chrysler represented everything wrong with car culture. Kswami Sawant, a Socialist elected to the Seattle City Council, calling for Boeing to retool its factories to make mass transit vehicles. (Boeing actually tried that in the 1970’s, but were unable to make good light rail trains). | Freeways were one visible aspect of the environmental movement. Providing efficiency to many, but unpleasantness to neighbors, they incarnated the guns-versus-butter debate on environmentalism. Just outside of Washington, DC, two miles of the Capital Beltway was built through an aquatic ecosystem without environmental review or engineered protections in the early 1960’s. In New York, Robert Moses came fairly close to putting a freeway through the Cast Iron District of SoHo. | Give the people clean water and good parks, and you’ll win support. Regulate citizens’ lifestyles, from bag taxes to mandatory recycling, and you can lose support fast. Ordinary citizens have certain limits on environmental rules that affect their way of life. In Maryland, chicken farmers were miffed about an impending law that would end the long-standing practice of using chicken manure for fertilizing fields, on account of ammonia run-off concerns. A so-called “Rain tax” on asphalt parking lots and driveways led to the election of a Republican governor there. This past legislative session in Virginia, the use of wood-burning stoves became an inalienable right. | What do we understand now that we didn’t 50 years ago? Resources are finite. Chemical and pH balances of stream are essential to the survival of fish and amphibian animals. Tilt this gentle balance, and you lose your ecosystem. In an era where business interests lead government, we need to hold leaders accountable for protecting swamps and wilderness for peoples’ enjoyment. Today, an educated person can make an argument for abolishing or curtailing the roles of the EPA, and not be chased off stage. This fact speaks for how far we’ve come in the stewardship of our environment. Reference: “Give Earth a Chance”, Adam Rome

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