The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Even on a Flaming River, a Rising Tide Lifted all Boats

Posted by | August 11, 2013

The following was originally published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 8/11/13:

You may have heard the story of the birth of the modern American environmental movement: Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring in 1962, the Cuyahoga River catches fire in 1969, tens of thousands of Americans join together to celebrate the first Earth Day in 1970, and then, over the next three years, a Republican president saves the planet. Mr. Nixon creates the EPA; extends, with Maine’s Senator Muskie, the Clean Air Act; signs the Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, and Endangered Species Acts; and even sets in motion the legislation that eventually establishes the local Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Never mind that the Cuyahoga had been catching fire regularly since the mid-1800s, or that Mr. Nixon actually vetoed the Clean Water Act, or that “Republican” meant something different forty years ago. What’s important is the story: an empowering fable of scientists and the citizenry teaming up to overcome the odds and force government to turn around a country before it disappeared beneath smudge and sludge.

For the most part, it’s a true story. It’s just not the whole story.

What usually gets left out of the environmental movement’s genesis tale is the chief driver of so many of those dramatic societal shifts in the 1960s: the post-war economic explosion, the likes of which had never been witnessed before.

Americans had never commanded such wealth. With basic needs finally met, more people were able to turn their attentions to long-neglected issues: health care, civil rights, pollution, biodiversity, even beautification. We finally had time to want the better things in life, and with real disposable income *but also with* state and federal governments funded through higher taxes, we could afford them. Dramatic photos of a polluted river were important, but so was an economic base wide enough to realize the dream of clean water.

This isn’t something that only happened far away or long ago in Cleveland or Washington; it’s still happening today. Saco and Biddeford are changing. The Saco River has changed too. Did the river somehow clean itself up, and in so doing make the community a more desirable place to live? Or did residents successfully fighting for cleaner water and cleaner air create a more desirable place to live, and in so doing, attract more people to the area? There’s a “quality of place” virtuous cycle – restore something, and it becomes something worth protecting.

That’s how it should work, and does. Just look at UNE’s Saco River Estuary Project updates, or downtown Biddeford’s slow but steady progress, if you want to see the cycle in action. Continued economic development will be necessary to sustain the environmental progress, of course, but to be as truly successful as the 20th century’s, the environmental movement of the 21st century, locally or nationally, needs to do what worked in the past: find people with means and people with courage, and pair them with strong science and strong government.

Today, we’re really only lacking that last one. Why do we keep trying to weaken it further?

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday Journal Tribune column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, Left and Right. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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