This year marks the 45th annual Earth Day. We have come a long way since then in our understanding of how the environment works as a system and in how to take care of it.
We also have a long way to go before we can be satisfied with our progress.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, some of the problems that precipitated the need for the first Earth Day have been solved.
Unfortunately, in some other ways we are no better off than we were 45 years ago. In fact, in some ways we are doing even less well.
Oil and chemical spills
The aftermath of a major oil spill in Santa Barbara in January 1969 contributed greatly to the impetus to hold Earth Day in 1970.
In March 1970, carelessness by the Chevron Oil Company resulted in a major spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Spills large and small occur every year.
Finger pointing, protest rallies, and intemperate words predictably pollute the political atmosphere whenever chemicals pollute the water or air. Moaning and groaning about corporate greed misses the point, or at least shines a big spotlight on a small part of the problem.
As the punchline in the April 22, 1970 (Earth Day) Pogo strip says, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
And as another very familiar quotation puts it, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Duke Energy’s coal ash spill on the Dan River illustrates the scope of the problem. Mixing coal ash with water to keep it out of the atmosphere seemed like a good idea at one time. Somehow, one the ash pits on the Dan River was enlarged over a couple of drainage pipes. That bit of unbelievable stupidity was just the first of a number of bad decisions led to disaster.
- Coal ash is considered an “exempt waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, provided it’s contained in a pond. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency has limited authority. It can only act after a spill.
- Before 2010, power plants in North Carolina were regulated only by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which was expert on setting rates, but not on inspecting ash ponds.
- After a change in state law put the North Carolina Department of Energy and Natural Resources in charge of regulating the power plants, the agency neglected to pass inspection reports and recommendations to any of the regional offices.
- The drainpipe was a matter of concern as early as 1986, when a report said that it was made of corrugated metal. According to Duke Energy’s records, though, the pipe was made of reinforced concrete. Regular for turbidity at the outflow, as recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seemed adequate. Video inspection seemed an unnecessary bother.
- For some reason, the EPA did not mention the recommendation made by its own inspector in its inspection letter to Duke Energy and the DENR in 2009.
- Without information from either the state or the EPA, regional inspectors had no authority to question the pipe.
- Did any Duke employee on site have any suspicions about the pipe? If so, did he or she voice that suspicion to superiors? So far as I know, the press has not asked that question.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Dan River spill. There’s always plenty of blame to go around for any environmental disaster.
Subsequent acrimony predictably points to greedy profiteering. However greedy some corporations might be about their profits, widespread complacency seems a more dangerous culprit.
Time documented plenty more kinds and sources of pollution in1970:
- The Nixon administration ordered all federal facilities to end pollution, or at least have plans in progress by 1972. The state of California decided not to wait and sued Ft. Ord for dumping sewage into Monterrey Bay –3/16
- The entire state of Florida had to deal with numerous threats to water, which illustrate the classic tug of war between economic development and environmental preservation. — 4/13
- As the agriculture industry supplanted the traditional family farm, farm animals were confined to smaller and smaller spaces. The ground could no longer process the wastes. Most suggestions for dealing with this fairly new problem were impractical. –9/14
- At the beginning of the year, mercury in water had seemed a problem limited to the great lakes. Then it was found in 33 states after 20 years of companies dumping it into various waterways. — 9/28
- Jetliners routinely jettisoned about three gallons of kerosene left over from the previous flight every time they took off. The airlines insisted it vaporized and did not return to earth. An Eastern Airlines pilot reported that it contributed to airport smog and fell on runways making them a “greasy and slippery” hazard. When he insisted that mechanics drain the holding tanks on the ground, the airline fired him. –11/2
- Vermont’s governor complained, “The worse pollution becomes in New York and Boston, the more people will think about moving to the country.” Meanwhile, the Vermont’s own clean air was under threat from slipshod real estate development and the state’s attempt to attract industry. State laws to regulate water pollution came to nothing when the environmental control board and the governor ruled in favor of a new tissue paper manufacturing plant and against the recommendation of a district environmental commission. –11/9
Most of the basic federal environmental laws and regulations were either still in the future or new and untried in 1970. As more and more corporations begin to realize that sustainability is good for their bottom line, they are more likely to heed employees’ environmental and safety concerns than fire them for speaking out.
Several of the articles concern the conflict between what seems good for the economy and what seems good for the environment. It’s not going away any time soon.
Joel W. Hedgpeth and Eugene K. Peterson contributed thoughtful articles to Environment on water pollution and air pollution respectively. The scientific details are probably obsolete by this time. Most of the basic concerns they raise could easily be written today.
In fact, Peterson barely gives a nod to the contemporary hysteria over the looming ice age. His description of global warming is a good model for how to present detailed scientific fact without getting derailed into thoroughly unscientific predictions.
Last week I was very critical of Paul Ehrlich for his overheated fear-mongering about overpopulation.
But it is hard to find fault with his article about over-fishing.
At the time, Americans seemed to welcome the challenge of feeding the whole world. As part of the effort, many voices touted the ocean as a major new source of food for a hungry world.
Ehrlich countered that it would require vastly increasing the amount of seafood harvested annually.
But two problems stand between man and the future achievement of that seventy million or more tons of yield. The first is overexploitation, the second is oceanic pollution. The story of the whale fisheries serves as a model of overexploitation.
Two articles from Time make similar points:
- Japanese and Russian had killed so many whales that the population of some species had become dangerously low. The International Whaling Commission declined to lower the allowable quotas. — 7/20
- Besides documenting how polluted the oceans had become, Jacques Yves Cousteau warned about the brutal effects of modern fishing techniques. Eggs and larvae got scooped up along with the fish and other seafood. 9/28
Hunting whales has since been greatly reduced. Only 1,000 were killed in 2012 as opposed to the 57,891 Ehrlich reported for 1966. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, pollution now kills more annually than hunting.
As far as over-exploitation of fish for human food is concerned, when is the last time you saw orange roughy on a restaurant menu? It has been severely overfished.
Even the cod off the New England coast that once seemed limitless have been reduced dramatically.
Besides dangerously reducing populations of fish used for food, modern fishing methods result in “bycatch,” that is, what is caught unintentionally.
Bycatch includes undersized juveniles of the target species, undesirable fish species, whatever birds, sea turtles, etc. that get swept up with everything else. Most of it must simply be discarded.
Suspicion and mistrust—make it normal
Objections came from both sides of the political spectrum (Time 8/3).
- The Daughters of the American Revolution, among others, considered the environmental movement just the latest in a series of subversive attempts to undermine American society. As partial proof, Earth Day coincided with Lenin’s birthday.
- Conservatives like Milton Friedman questioned whether it was necessary to cast large corporations as the villains. The real source of most pollution they said, is consumers.
- The director of water resources for Georgia’s Union Camp corp. publicly questioned whether humans would suffer any real harm “if the whooping crane doesn’t quite make it.”
- Other conservatives fretted that environmental concerns were just another fad that took attention away from more pressing issues of national security.
- On the other hand, several chapters of Students for a Democratic Society took an anti-ecology stand simply because the Nixon administration was pro-ecology. Ecology took attention away from protesting the war in Vietnam.
- Black leaders, including Cleveland’s mayor Carl Stokes and Gary, Indiana’s mayor Richard Hatcher protested the new fascination with the environment more vocally than anyone else. The money spent on combating air and water pollution should be spent instead to assist the poor. Hatcher complained that even George Wallace couldn’t do what concern with the environment had done: “distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans.”
Conservation efforts are no longer regarded either as a communist plot or a smokescreen to distract the public from more important issues.
Nowadays, however, opposition to environmental protection no longer comes from both sides of the political spectrum. The main opposition comes either from industries that find it a threat or people who have hijacked the label “conservative” and fail to recognize that “conservation” comes from the same root.
Environmental activists bear much of the blame. Their gloom and doom prophecies don’t play as well as they did 45 years ago. Many find it offensive that more of the public does not share their alarm over climate change. So they try to persuade the public that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.
When will they catch on that no one is listening and advocate for the environment with issues most of the public already cares about? Isn’t the real issue getting people to adopt more sustainable habits for whatever reason appeals to them?
The top priority for achieving sustainability must be to make it seem normal and ordinary, not a special interest of a self-appointed elite.
[Greensboro, North Carolina] News & Record, March 9, 2014, March 20, 2014
Joel W. Hedgpeth, “The Oceans: World Sump” Environment 12 (Spring 1970): 40-47.
Eugene K. Peterson, “The Atmosphere: A Clouded Horizon” Environment 12 (Spring 1970): 32-39.
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich. “The Food-from-the-Sea Myth” Saturday Review (April 4, 1970): 53-55 ff.
Junichi Sato. “No Longer a Target, Whales Are Collateral Damage.” New York Times.
Sen. Muskie. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Coal ash spill site. Some rights reserved by NC Dept. of Energy and Natural Resources.
Dairy and lagoon. Some rights reserved by Friends of Family Farms.
Shrimp bycatch. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Men arguing. Some rights reserved by o5com [link to Flickr not working as of June 25, 2016]