I attended college in the mid-1970’s, starting around the end of the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s resignation. A restless atmosphere permeated campus as antiwar radicalism faded, leaving time to address other pressing dangers.
Newspaper headlines told the story. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire, the blaze feeding upon nothing more than sewage laced with flammable sludge. Developers in upstate New York broke ground for a planned community over a topsoil-covered chemical waste dump. Later the “Love Canal” housing project reported residents dying from leukemia in alarming numbers. A nuclear plant chemist in Oklahoma, Karen Silkwood, turned whistleblower, testifying before the Atomic Energy Commission, regarding the dangerous levels and exposure of radiation at the facility.
Silkwood later died in a suspicious car accident.
As Americans focused on ending the war in Southeast Asia, sustainable life visibly deteriorated in America. As we protested the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, we missed the incessant dumping of chemical runoff into Florida’s Everglades. Car exhaust, and acid rain doused the “Rust Belt” region surrounding the Great Lakes.
Some politicians stepped up to the moment, like Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter. Carter, a Democrat, ran for and won the 1976 Presidential Election. For many, Carter presented a serious, intelligent and incorruptible problem-solver. Grasping the petroleum bull by the horns, President Carter prioritized America’s need to conserve energy. He pointed out that domestic transportation literally depended on the whims of Middle Eastern cartels who bore no love for the United States. Addressing the crisis, Carter appeared on prime time, wearing a sweater, imploring the country to turn down the heat to 65 degrees, and cut back on driving.
Though he was right, Carter served only one turbulent term, replaced by smiling Ronald Reagan. The Reagan campaign understood Americans wanted to hear only good news, and how exceptional Americans inherently were.
This changing guard had no love for Federal bureaucracy, quickly dispensing with environmental restrictions. James Watt served as Interior Secretary, and Anne Buford Gorsuch at the EPA. Both ignored Congressional environmental statutes, slashing budgets, cutting staff, and relaxing regulations on private logging rights and clean water standards.
In the 1990’s another voice rose to school Americans on the reality of environmental decay; former Vice President, Al Gore. In his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore presented a compelling case highlighting the ravages of climate change, and global warming. At the end of the film the Vice President adopted an encouraging tone. Now that American’s understood this impending threat, we would act as one to save our home planet.
For his stance, George H.W. Bush anointed Al Gore “Captain Ozone.” Pappy Bush was, after all, an oil man from Texas.
The kicker is that we knew in the 1970’s which way this story would end.
Today Lake Mead hosts more dead bodies than boaters, while vast catastrophic fires incinerate the Red Woods. Endless 100 degree-plus days extend longer every summer, and floods flow through the arroyos of the Desert Southwest. In the highest latitudes polar ice shelves calve mountains of glaciers raising the ocean levels globally.
If the purpose of politics is to nurture dim, aggrieved consumers, the GOP has accomplished that, in spades. But the crisis is real, and the GOP is not helping.
In point of fact, the Trump Administration referred to global warming as a hoax. The US formally withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, ratified during the Obama years. According to the Washington Post, under Trump’s watch, over 125 Obama era protections were reversed, loosening regulations on endangered species and oil spills.
For those of us of a certain age, we have watched this crisis evolve over fifty years. Buck passing, unfettered capitalism, combined with political postering renders this moment impossible to fix. If pursuit of wealth and hubris outweighs preservation, greed is our undoing.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has also written two plays. “Clay” deals with the life of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, and “Wolf By The Ears,” explores the beginnings of racism and slavery.