The recent election of Trump and a Republican controlled right-wing Congress that is hostile to protecting the environment reflects an interesting case of cultural amnesia. When the Environmental Protection Agency was founded on December 2, 1970, under the administration of Richard Nixon, protecting the environment was an important nonpartisan issue. When the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (now the DEEP) was founded, Republican Thomas Meskill was the governor and Republican Dan Meskill was the first commissioner. Protecting our environment was a bipartisan effort.
And by the early 1970s, people had become pretty sophisticated about the need to ratchet back on corporate abuses. Our rivers could not be safely swum in. Whole classes of wildlife, like Osprey and Bald Eagles, had been decimated by chemical contamination. Cities like New York and San Francisco had major problems with smog. Scientist activists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner were using science to demonstrate what was happening and why. Commoner was one of the early scientists to show how the atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s was leading to global contamination -“demonstrating the presence of Strontium 90 in children’s teeth as a direct result of nuclear fallout.” See the Wikipedia article on Commoner.
Commoner had four basic rules for the environment:
“Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system”
There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.”
Perhaps the core principle is that we are all interconnected and there is nowhere else besides this earth to go. If we don’t live on this planet in a manner that is sustainable, we are going to suffer if we survive at all. One visible result of the creation of the EPA and the state DEPs, and the enactment of complementary laws, is that a number of sources of industrial pollution in the United States were successfully eliminated. The atmosphere in New York and San Francisco is noticeably better. The Connecticut and Hudson Rivers are cleaner. Sewer runoff in our towns is better addressed. There are two lessons that can now be gleaned from that experience.
The first is that known and visible sources of pollution can be regulated and reduced if there is the political will to do so.
The second lesson, however, is that local, state, and national regulation of visible pollution is proving, nonetheless, to be insufficient to protect the global sustainability of the environment. Existing regulations are failing in several particulars. The first problem is that regulation of industrial waste in the United States has been subverted or otherwise avoided by global corporations that have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries with weaker or no environmental regulations – thus avoiding the added manufacturing cost of compliance, but not reducing the ultimate pollution to the extent necessary. There may be less smog in New York but the air in Mexico City, Beijing, and other cities continues to get worse. The second problem is that our regulatory apparatus, by addressing primarily visible sources of pollution, has failed to protect against the dissemination into our environment of a host of “synthetic chemicals” created by industries and agribusiness for their useful properties without appropriate testing of their environmental impact. Thus, for example, numerous chemicals, hormone mimics, and antibiotics are now building up in our bodies in ways that wreak havoc with our reproductive systems, immune systems, and well-being. And finally, our regulatory apparatus has failed to address the ongoing problems created by carbon and methane emissions that, taken as a whole, are leading toward disastrous climate warming. Levels of co2 and methane in the atmosphere, the base cause of global warming, continue to rise. And given the complexity of the ecosystems, there remain numerous other significant and disconcerting dynamics at work in the environment.
In short, our existing protective agencies and regulations are proving to be inadequate, notwithstanding that they have provided yeoman service. Unfortunately, public awareness of the problem has been dying – how else could the current imbecilic science deniers have been elected. We now have a Congress, President, and EPA head that are hostile to science, conservation efforts, and, for that matter, any fact based reality. This could only have happened through the combined efforts of decades of corporate propaganda and lobbying, what appears to be a collective dumbing down of media and culture, and an apparent complacency in a population convinced that they personally are not directly threatened. The current state of affairs is leading us to a global calamity.
Recognizing the problem is necessary if we are to turn this around and begin the needed reforms.