Blog Action Day: Environmentalism, then and now


Today, bloggers worldwide have been asked to focus on a single issue: The environment.
As I have no special expertise on the topic, I’m going to using this opportunity to document the experience of growing up along with the environmental movement.

Silent Summer

I grew up during the McCarthy era, the child of a liberal father who read Silent Spring and then stopped using DDT on the anthills at our summer cottage. I suspect all the neighbors thought we were nuts. But an awareness of the impact of all the new chemicals that had been introduced into the environment was slowly emerging. I remember people sitting on the beach and speculating about the gradual disappearance of the little sandpipers that used to scamper along the water’s edge.

Earth Day

In high school in Northern Virginia I was one of those “hippie-types” who naively set about beautifying the school property on the first Earth Day in 1970. A group of us were called on the carpet by the high school principal, a fellow quite open about his Ku Klux Klan membership, and counseled that unattractive and unsanitary conditions in the school were the result of…racial integration.

Economics and Oil

Yes, it often felt silly trying to use fewer paper towels while American industry was wasting natural resources by the ton. Bumperstickers didn’t do much to drive change, but the Arab oil cartels did. The 1972 gas shortage, not any pangs of conscience, led to the development of energy-efficient cars — or, rather, to the importation of energy-efficient cars developed by the Japanese.

Food

Organic food had been the province of eccentrics like Adelle Davis, but the “back to the land” commune movement and urban food co-ops re-vitalized the idea of healthy cooking and eating. (Laurel’s Kitchen, published in 1976, was as much a nutritional encyclopedia as a cookbook, and is worth studying for an insight into the minds of people making the shift from eating highly prepared foods to whole grains and natural ingredients.)

There was very little interest at that time in the idea of “natural” or “organic” meat. Meat was bad, bad, bad, and the alternative was vegetarian soups and curries, paired with whole grain breads heavy enough to be used as cannon fodder. Though, if you’d eaten some of the brownies, you probably didn’t care. (And somehow chocolate got replaced by carob during The Great Organic Kitchen Purge; I’ve never figured that one out.) Concerns about nutrition and concerns about additives were mixed in with environmental concerns about agricultural pesticides, baked in heated arguments, and served up with a garnish of sanctimony. If you added in the contemporaneous issues about women and men and who does the cooking, the 1970s kitchen really heated up.

Dumping

Yes, once upon a time we used to dump everything in the garbage. Unless, of course, you lived in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, where glass soda pop bottles could be turned in for a few pennies. Or you had milk delivery (we did, in Virginia) and glass milk bottles were recycled. But mostly, everything went to the dump.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a reporter and my specialty was landfills. I learned about landfills for nuclear waste, landfills for construction waste, landfills for medical waste, and landfills for plain old household garbage. And about how private hauling firms, charging large sums to haul particularly hazardous waste long distances to specially certified landfills, often pocketed the fees and dumped the waste at less expensive landfills certified to take innocuous construction waste or plain garbage instead. (And about how the private hauling firms, owned by interlocking families, rigged bidding on municipal garbage contracts. But that is another story.)

Much of my investigative work was in Connecticut, where landfills tend to be sited next to rivers — usually at the downstream border of a particular township. One landfill I was investigating — after multiple incidents of illegal dumping — spontaneously combusted. As a matter of fact, the river next to it caught fire as well. When I left the newspaper, 22 years ago, the FBI had seized the landfill and was investigating.

Out of curiosity, I Googled this landfill last week. Incredibly, the state has yet to do anything about it, or its owner (a former state legislator), though they are still “trying.”

The factor that dismayed me the most about the whole dumping investigation was not the authorities’ inability to get to the powerful politicians and business people who backed the hauling and landfill operations. It was the reaction — or lack of it — from the people who lived near these hazardous waste sites. They didn’t want to make waves because the companies doing the dumping, hauling, and maintaining the sites were employers and provided jobs for the community.

Big-Systems Thinking

There is no question that the environment has finally made its way to the grownups’ table for official discussion. Some 60 years after Silent Spring, global warming is demonstrating how a closed system works, and political and economic forces are beginning to drive significant change. It’s a fascinating process, and I hope some other planet is documenting it.

Speaking of the big picture…whenever I see one of the big science fiction films about asteroids or aliens threatening the earth, I have to roll my eyes. As Walt Kelly said in Pogo (another one of my dad’s favorites from the 1950s), “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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