Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Fingerprints of Change

The fingerprints of change are often evident decades before they are credited in narratives.

In the United States, concern for the environment is often traced to then-Republican President Richard Nixon’s announcement in 1970, the day after my 22nd birthday, when he laid out plans to establish the US Environmental Protection Agency, following the enactment six months earlier of landmark environmental policy legislation.

However, by then, concern for the environment at the federal level had been percolating for at least 80 years, beginning with the 1899 passage of the Harbors and Rivers Act under another Republican President William McKinley.

It was the states that pushed for central supervision of environmental matters and by 1913 the federal government began to study the health risks related to water pollution.

At the turn of the 19th century, Chicago, Illinois was seeking to stem forty years of typhoid outbreaks there, the disease that had claimed the son of Republican President and Illinois-favorite-son, Abraham Lincoln after sewage from army camps had polluted the Potomac River adjacent to the US Capitol.

Chicago rechanneled its sewage discharge away from Lake Michigan, where the city also drew drinking water, to the west and into the Mississippi River where it eventually found its way downstream and fouled drinking water for St. Louis, Missouri, creating one of the earliest environmental interstate conflicts.

According to sustainability historians such as Dr. Jouni Paavola, early in the 20th century, New York and New Jersey similarly clashed when NY objected to NJ sewage being rechanneled into upper New York Bay and NJ objected in return that garbage was washing up on NJ beaches after being dumped at sea by NY.Government and Water Infrastructure

In the 1920s, under another Republican President, Calvin Coolidge, federal agencies were first granted authority to protect migrating water fowl, regulate pesticides, study air pollution and control pollution from oil.

A week after my seventh birthday, in mid 1955, just a year after the US Supreme Court had desegregated schools and as officials were preparing the first nation-wide immunization of school children against polio, federal agencies under another Republican President, Dwight. D. Eisenhower, were first granted the responsibility to control and mitigate air pollution, 15 years before Nixon created the EPA.

Far from being a power grab, as it is stigmatized by many of today’s Republicans, the federal government centralized environmental protection only after attempts failed so miserably to incentivize control and standards at the local and state levels.

Today as many elected Republicans sabre-rattle in my adopted home state of North Carolina threatening to overturn environmental regulations including those that safeguard air and water quality, hopefully they are reminded that:


  • North Carolinians love their state and its beauty and sense of place.  The majority of voters in all three parties view what’s good for the environment as good for the economy.


  • As a North Carolina native and conservative Republican, who champions his party’s environmental legacy, wrote recently about environmental desecration: it “is as impious as it is imprudent. It is certainly not conservative.”


  • They remember the rule espoused by the late William F. Buckley, a famous conservative Republican, when he implied that anyone voting to foul the environment should first be required to similarly foul the area around their own home and family and neighborhood including the water they drink and the air they breathe.

No comments: