The River Is Still Burning

A little over forty years ago, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. It wasn't the first time the polluted waters had gone ablaze - indeed, since 1868, the river had lit up at least thirteen times. At the time, the excessive pollution of our nation's waterways was the "price of optimism," the inevitable cost of life in an increasingly urban world.

The fire that burned on June 22, 1969 had a different meaning for many others. To them, it was the Earth's cry for help. In a blaze of glory, Mother Nature was calling out to her children to do something to save her before it was too late. Because of the fire, and other glaring atrocities against our environment, Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be held on April 22, 1970 in an attempt to change the way America approached the land that supported it. By the time that date finally rolled around, press coverage and grassroots movements had spread the word across the nation. Over 20 million people participated in Earth Day that spring.

We celebrate Earth Day on April 22 each year. More than 500 million people in 175 countries participate in the annual event. Forty years later, much has improved. The environmental movement that was in its infancy in 1970s has blossomed. While once denounced as "hippies" or "tree-huggers," people who care about the environment have made a place in the world, politically and culturally. It's now not only OK to be conscious of your environmental impact, it's downright trendy to be green. Our waters, air and lands are cleaner. Indeed, a lot has changed.

But we still have environmental challenges to overcome, and as we reflect on the past 40 years of Earth Days, we must remember that the struggle isn't over.

Just this week, the 2010 Environmental Performance Index values were released. The EPI ranks 163 countries, giving each a number from 0 to 100 that says how good they're doing in terms of the environement. Factoring in to the ranking are measures that chart not only green concerns, like how air pollution affects the country's ecosystems, but also how a country's environmental policies affect public health.

In 2008, the US snuck into the top 40 at 39th place. As a country, we had a score of 81. But this year, we've slid even further down the list. With a score of only 63.5, the US ranks 61st. Meanwhile Iceland leapfrogged from 11th place all the way to 1st, due to its dedication to country-wide eco awareness. Iceland takes good care of its environment, scoring high on all the public health related measures, and, in addition, gets virtually all of its power from renewable sources and controls greenhouse gas emissions.

Why did America plummet? Mostly, we lagged behind other countries in bettering our air. Our air pollution related measures fell off. Also, while other countries were cutting emissions, we failed to do so. Since that first Earth Day, atmospheric CO2 has risen 19 percent, causing a global temperature rise of an entire degree. We have done little to slow this trend.

Part of the problem is that many Americans simply don't believe there is anything to worry about. A Gallup Poll last year found that while almost all Americans know about climate change (97%), only 63% believe it is a threat, and less than half believe that we have anything to do with it. And here in America, more recent polls reveal that more and more people are rejecting the theory that climate change is caused by human activity.

Meanwhile EPI leaders like Costa Rica not only see the threat as real, they know that their actions make a difference, and are leading the charge in combating the issue.

The USA is by no means a beacon of environmental sustainability. To be honest, we are one of the most offensive countries to the planet. But we're smart. We're passionate. And we're inventive. Henry Ford once said, "What's right about America is that although we have a mess of problems, we have great capacity - intellect and resources - to do some thing about them."

Indeed, we have a mess of environmental problems that need to be addressed. We face a new set of environmental challenges, ones that we didn't even know existed in 1970. When the US started the tradition of Earth Day, we were stepping up to the plate and proclaiming that our nation could - no, had to - do better. It's time for us to rise to the occasion again.

Forty years ago, a river fire ignited a nation. Since then, we've removed much of the pollutants that clogged our waterways. But our rivers are still on fire. Scientists have found that the temperatures of our freshwater systems are rising, putting the fragile species that live in them at risk. While we may not see the flames, our rivers are still burning.

We cannot sit idly by while invasive pests eat their way through our ecosystems. We cannot watch as species disappear forever at an alarming rate. We cannot turn a blind eye to the rising threats of global warming and ocean acidification and pretend that they have nothing to do with us.

This Earth Day, while we celebrate the great strides we have made in the past four decades, we must also remember that there is much more to be done. We cannot, and will not, become complacent.


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Another remarkable thing about that 1969 Times article is this bit:

"Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays."

It would be unthinkable, now, that any respectable publication would print "he decays" rather than "they decay".


Interesting how you take an article on pollution and make it an article on women's status. Two issues:

1. The term "he" in times gone by, although masculine in term, was generally accepted as being neutral when used in phrases such as "he decays".

2. "they decay" is grammatically incorrect.

Great minds think alike! I've been posting every hour on Facebook today, highlighting the history and environmental impact of the Cuyahoga River. So cool. I just used your blog for this hour's post. Thanks!

By Anastasia (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

Not going to argue with Renegade. My comment was a passing observation, not an invitation to debate.

I won't pretend it's not tempting, though, because we all like to stamp on those willfully ignorant folk who are so sure they're right - it makes such a lovely crunching noise.