It Didn’t Happen by Itself
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s displaced millions of Americans and was an environmental disaster. After a drought hit the Great Plains, topsoil was blown away, and farming became impossible. The Great Plains states recovered after the federal government implemented many strategies – soil conservation, tree planting, and education in adapting farming practices to the region. Additional government programs helped the human population make it through the crisis and helped that region stabilize economically. Recovering from the Dust Bowl didn’t happen by itself. We Americans took action.
Commercial hunting drove North America’s largest land animal – the American Bison – to the very edge of extinction. Our nation may well have lost this magnificent animal if not for a handful of ranchers who stepped in and took action – people like Scotty Philip and Fred Dupree in South Dakota, Charles Allard and Michel Pablo in Montana, and Molly and Charles Goodnight in Texas. The recovery of the American Bison – finally recognized by Congress in 2016 as an important symbol of our nation – didn’t happen by itself. Americans – just a few of them in this case – took action to save this splendid and rugged beast.
People who lived in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, suffered miscarriages, birth defects, and other assaults on their health because of a leaking chemical dump buried in their neighborhood. Determined residents and a persistent local reporter discovered the truth. Those residents found remedy because Congress took action to help them relocate and to establish the polluter’s financial responsibility. Lives were saved and people were helped. It didn’t happen by itself, though.
A pollution “smog” in Donora, Pennsylvania, killed 20 people (plus nearly 800 animals) and sickened thousands more residents in October 1948. The fact that we don’t see that kind of event anymore in this country is not mere coincidence, and it didn’t happen by itself. Laws were passed – starting with the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955 (America’s first clean air law) and the first Clean Air Act in 1963 – to protect air quality (and therefore protect public health).
The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland doesn’t catch fire anymore, nor do other American rivers. The Cuyahoga still faces plenty of threats to its health, but 1969 was the last time it ever caught fire. That improvement didn’t happen by itself. American cities and states passed laws to clean up rivers, the Clean Water Act was passed, the EPA was organized.
I picked up a copy of the Statistical Abstract of the United States (2010 edition) at the public library a while back. Table 362 (Selected Air Pollutant Emissions: 1970 to 2007) showed that certain kinds of air pollution are reduced today from their levels in 1970. Table 362 listed carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and certain classes of particulate matter. Discharges of those pollutants in the United States are all reduced from 1970 levels (or 1990 in the case of some particulates). In many respects (though not all), our kids are breathing better air now than then. This did not happen by itself.
Burning coal kills thousands of people every year in America. As I mentioned earlier, the Clean Air Task Force study estimates that 13,000 Americans are killed annually by fine particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants in our country. This is a substantial improvement from the 20,000 annual deaths their study estimated just a few years earlier. But this improvement didn’t happen by itself. It happened because we adopted regulations requiring scrubbers to be installed on smokestacks at power plants.1
To the extent that certain pollution problems – toxic neighborhoods, burning rivers, and people dying from breathing the air – don’t occur as often as they used to… this didn’t happen by itself. Neither did saving the bald eagle by getting rid of DDT, or saving people’s lives by getting rid of lead in gasoline.
That’s because we Americans have collectively taken action to identify the problems, get an idea of how bad those problems are, establish who is responsible, clean up the pollution, and set a course to prevent the problems from recurring.
But we have a knack for coming up with new problems to solve – new chemicals, new technologies, new kinds of waste, new demands on our land and water.
We Americans are capable of being a practical people. We know, or should know, that preventing a problem is better (and usually cheaper) than trying to recover from a problem. And we know that most problems don’t solve themselves.
Yet I’ve heard some people, even some candidates for the White House, call for getting rid of the very laws that have kept these disasters from revisiting our nation. These are people who believe that problems will solve themselves, that we can deal with our problems by doing nothing.
That’s not how America became a great nation.