It has occurred to me recently that the environmental movement may be the victim of its own success. A substantial majority of the current American population takes for granted its most obvious results: relatively clean air and water. Much of the rest is largely invisible or goes unnoticed: things like lower amounts of hazardous chemicals in our food and water, healthier bird populations, wetlands that filter water and provide habitat for waterfowl, and parks and natural areas that have been preserved.
But I am old enough to remember a different time and a different environment. I graduated from high school in 1959 and took a job as a coal passer on a Great Lakes iron ore boat. It was the first of several blue collar jobs which paid my way through undergraduate and law school at the University of Michigan. My boat was the Edward S. Kendrick. Built in 1903, it was one of the few remaining coal burners in the ore carrier fleet. We sailed all of the Great Lakes except for Lake Ontario, and the ports we visited included Superior and Green Bay, Wisc.; Chicago; Marquette; Detroit; and Cleveland and Lackawanna, Ohio.
One of my jobs on each of my three daily shifts was to shoot the ashes from our four large boilers over the side, directly into whatever lake we happened to be on. Human waste was also delivered directly into the lake. We, of course, were not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other watercraft did exactly the same thing with their sewage. They were joined by municipalities, large and small, which happened to be located either directly on one of the Great Lakes or on a river which emptied into them.
The effect of this practice was noxiously apparent in places like the harbors of Chicago and Cleveland. I will spare you a description of the sights and odors encountered when we docked at places like that. But still worse, the big lakes themselves were threatened. Lake Erie was becoming a giant cesspool, with a dying fish population and water that was downright dangerous in spots. Experts predicted a similar fate for the other lakes unless something was done.
Even as a callow 18-year-old, I was appalled by what was happening to our prized lakes.
The second experience came shortly after I graduated from law school and joined a large Detroit law firm. We represented a Fortune Five Hundred company which operated a manufacturing plant in southwest Michigan. Around 1967 I was assigned the task of defending them in a lawsuit brought by a farmer who owned a farm adjacent to the plant. He alleged that the plant was discharging 10,000 gallons of water-soluble oil per day through a drainage ditch across his land. The untreated discharge then drained directly into the River Raisin.
This was before the enactment of the U.S. and Michigan environmental protection acts, and there was nothing illegal about dumping the oil into the river. If the oil hadn’t crossed the farmer’s land the discharge could have continued unabated.
The plant manager was both a nice guy and a stalwart citizen of the small community where the plant was located. But his job was to run his plant in the most economical manner possible, not protect the environment. So I was instructed to stall the lawsuit as long as possible, making it clear to the elected local judge that the existence of the plant in the community might be in question. A temporary injunction sought by the farmer pending a final ruling was denied. After more than a year of delay, the court had to confront the request for a permanent injunction against the discharge. Just before the inevitable order was entered, I was instructed to settle the case, since an alternative method of disposing the oil on site had been created for the grand sum of $100,000.
This was when it dawned on me that without some governmentally imposed set of requirements corporate America would continue to do what it was supposed to do: run its operations in the most efficient manner for the benefit of its shareholders without regard to environmental damage. And trust me, nothwithstanding those TV ads by big oil and coal, etc., touting their love of the environment, that would continue to be the course of conduct to this day were it not for laws and regulations protecting the environment.
Finallly, a recent trip to China has reinforced my environmental commitment. My wife and I toured much of China from the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai to small hamlets in the countryside. We were prepared for the notoriously hard to breathe smog of Beijing, much like that found in major U.S. cities in the 1950s and ’60s. But we were surprised that the pink haze prevailed in the countryside hundreds of miles from major cities. China is not a healthy place. And neither would be America but for the environmental movement.