The opening months of the Trump administration have witnessed blatant attacks on environmental regulation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Clean Water Rule has been threatened, methane emissions rules weakened, car pollution standards rolled back, a moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands ended, and pollution cleanup rules at coal power plants delayed. Coal companies can once again dump coal waste into the streams of Appalachia. Polluting industries have sent their favorite lobbyists to staff the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. The draft federal budget includes deep cuts to the EPA, slashing funding for numerous EPA programs including research, restoration, and enforcement. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has silenced scientists, declining “to reappoint half of a scientific advisory board.” Most observers assume he will select industry-friendly advisers instead.1 Climate policy is in chaos. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds dwindled from $300 million to $0 in the proposed federal budget—and even more damaging to the Great Lakes may be Pruitt’s decision to reduce enforcement against polluters.2 Dismantling the EPA is the first step toward what former White House strategist Steve Bannon calls “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”3 Environmental historians remind us that things have been bad before. But this bad? In 1980 President Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to the EPA, and she eviscerated the agency budget and demoralized staff. Gorsuch, however, was soon forced to resign, and President Reagan appointed the well-respected William Ruckelshaus, who had served as first EPA administrator under Nixon, to replace Gorsuch.4 Deregulation returned with a vengeance when the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, the so-called Republican Revolution. Yet a divided government stalled many of those efforts. In 2000 President George W. Bush started his presidential term by attacking EPA regulations, just as Reagan had done. Grover Norquist claimed he wanted to reduce government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”5 But Bush’s first EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, was a powerful voice for environmental protection. She resigned after Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on easing air pollution controls.6 Stephen Johnson, EPA administrator under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, certainly generated controversy, particularly when an editorial by the scientific journal Nature claimed he acted with “reckless disregard for law, science or the agency’s own rules—or, it seems, the anguished protests of his own subordinates.”7 Yet while critics claimed he showed “more zeal in protecting business interests than the environment,” Johnson had spent three decades working in the agency.8 He respected its staff and mission, even if he sometimes infuriated environmentalists. Scott Pruitt is an entirely different beast. His official state website called him “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” and at his confirmation hearing, he could not name a single EPA regulation he liked.9 Perhaps most frustrating for those of us who live in the Great Lakes, Pruitt has announced that he is effectively suspending the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule that reduces mercury and other releases that harm fetal and childhood development. One in ten children in the Lake Superior basin are born with toxic levels of mercury in their blood, and most wild fish are too contaminated with mercury for human consumption. This mercury comes largely from coal-burning power plants, and the MATS rule was finalized in 2011 to control these sources. But on April 12, 2017, Pruitt simply decided “that it is appropriate and in the public interest to reconsider the rule.”10 When the MATS rule was first announced, the industry insisted that cost and reliability problems with mercury control technologies would devastate their industry. That did not prove to be the case. By the time Pruitt suspended the MATs rule, nearly all power plants were already in compliance—showing that the industry’s fears that the rules would devastate them were unfounded.11 Pruitt and Trump seem to share a key quality: not just an aversion to environmental regulation, but a willingness to deny that the environment even needs protection. Their denialism stretches far beyond climate change to denying that we need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Trump declared to Chris Wallace of Fox News, “Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace; every week they come out with new regulations.” Wallace challenged Trump: “Who’s going to protect the environment?” Trump replied, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”12 What is an environmental historian to do? How can historical approaches help the broader public—particularly the conservatives among us—understand why environmental regulation, at the federal as well as the state and local levels, has been necessary and effective? I think about these questions a lot because I live in what journalists breathlessly call “Trump country.” My county in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had more than 100,000 residents when the mines and lumber industry were humming along. Fewer than a third remain, and 53 percent of those who voted went for Trump (but 63 percent chose a Democratic state representative, so political alliances are complex). I serve as co-chair of two local bipartisan climate groups (the Houghton chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and the Keweenaw Climate Community). Preaching to the choir would be a lonely business up here, so instead we spend much of our time talking with conservatives about the need for carbon pricing and the benefits of climate adaptation. Plus I teach at Michigan Tech, where many students share a conservative skepticism of the federal government. At least a third of the 105 students in my environment and society course were not dismayed the day after the election when I anonymously polled them. (Another third were utterly horrified, and the final third were just glad the election was over.) While we have plenty of conservative voices, my students and neighbors (and even my conservative congressional representative) are passionate about Lake Superior and the north woods. After living and teaching here for four years, I’m convinced that the EPA, like vaccines, is a victim of its own success—many people simply do not remember what life was like before. They believe either that the air and water have always been clean, or else that industry voluntarily cleaned up the region. Teaching the environmental history of these particular local places offers me a way to reach my conservative as well as liberal students, getting them involved in a serious conversation about how best to protect and restore not just the Great Lakes, but broader environments as well. I start by asking my students to sketch for me what they think Lake Superior looked like 150 years ago and 50 years ago. For both time periods, they typically draw thick forests, clean waters, wolves chasing deer. In other words, they imagine what they see today has always been the case. So I take them outside for a walk along the Portage Canal, and we compare today’s forested view to pictures from the height of the mining boom in the 1840s and the lumber era in the 1880s. The verdant hills we see across the waterway were barren in both sets of early images, hardly a tree in sight. Red clay ran into the estuaries. Mine waste filled the local creeks on the spine of the Keweenaw, until the copper-processing plants had to relocate along the shores of Lake Superior, where they constructed long launders that spilled the waste directly into the lake. We then turn to local photos from the national DOCUMERICA project. In the early 1970s, the new EPA commissioned photographers to travel around the United States and document pollution.13 When in early 2017 Trump promised to unburden Americans of EPA regulations, news media responded with a flood of stories reprinting the DOCUMERICA images and promising us that the bad old days would return if the EPA was to be dismembered. As one journalist wrote, “Today, the photos show what America looked like before environmental protections were put in place—and they serve as an important reminder of why we need those protections.”14 These are haunting images. A line of cars in 1973 Cleveland are silhouetted against a backdrop of glowing orange smog, power lines, and smokestacks. A ditch in the Midwest runs red and stagnant with pollution below a glass factory in 1972. From the National Water Quality Laboratory, a June 1973 photo shows the severely deformed spine of a Jordanella fish, twisted by fetal exposure to methylmercury in the water (figure 1). A duck is coated with oil, its eyes shut closed, contorted in a pond filled with toxic sludge. An Ohio woman named Mary Workman holds a jar of black well water polluted by a local coal company. Toxic asbestos tailings swirl through the western arm of Lake Superior (figure 2). Figure 1. View largeDownload slide A June 1973 DOCUMERICA image illustrates the effects of water pollution on fish. Credit: Donald Emmerich, “National Water Quality Laboratory: Severely deformed spine of the Jordanella fish is result of methyl mercury in water.” Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944–2006. National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Records Section, College Park, MD, NAID: 551593. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide A June 1973 DOCUMERICA image illustrates the effects of water pollution on fish. Credit: Donald Emmerich, “National Water Quality Laboratory: Severely deformed spine of the Jordanella fish is result of methyl mercury in water.” Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944–2006. National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Records Section, College Park, MD, NAID: 551593. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Water flowing across mine tailings mobilized heavy metals, asbestos, and sediments into Lake Superior. Credit: Donald Emmerich, “Foul smelling steam rises from the mucky water. Reserve’s taconite plant at Silver Bay produces iron ore from the taconite rock. It discharges 67,000 tons of waste rock into the lake daily.” Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944–2006. National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Records Section, College Park, MD, National Archives ID: 3045077. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Water flowing across mine tailings mobilized heavy metals, asbestos, and sediments into Lake Superior. Credit: Donald Emmerich, “Foul smelling steam rises from the mucky water. Reserve’s taconite plant at Silver Bay produces iron ore from the taconite rock. It discharges 67,000 tons of waste rock into the lake daily.” Record Group 412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944–2006. National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Records Section, College Park, MD, National Archives ID: 3045077. My students think I am as old as the hills, but it fascinates them that I was alive when these pictures were taken. I tell them about the time in June 1972 when my family camped on the shores of Lake Erie, hoping to go for a swim, but the lake was thick with algae as far as we could see. On Lake Michigan, we were confronted with miles of dead alewives, alien fish rotting on the shores of our inland sea. The stink was overwhelming. Flies rose from the carcasses, silvery, peeling bits of death swinging back and forth on the waves, smacking into our sneakered toes. My students cannot imagine living in a world where you have to wade through dead alewives to go for a swim. But the pictures, along with oral histories and letters they find in our university archives, convince them that these were common sights in the early 1970s before the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements were signed. It is one thing for me to lecture to them that by the early 1970s, filthy conditions in the Great Lakes stimulated grassroots concern in both Canada and the United States. But that lesson becomes much more powerful when I show them the evidence. They pass around jars full of distorted specimens, fish with nasty tumors caught in the nearby harbors half a century ago. But now that the local Torch Lake Superfund site has been mitigated, the students can fish again—and eat the fish they catch. Recovery—however partial—is an important lesson because if it is hopeless, students give up. They stop listening. We live in a world of wounds, but many of those wounds have healed—and that is a critical story for my students to hear. After handling these sources, they better understand that when Congress passed the Amendments to the federal Water Quality Act (known as the Clean Water Act) in 1972, overriding Richard Nixon’s veto, many of the nation’s waterways had become “foul, scum-covered sumps for factory discharges and untreated sewage.”15 The Clean Water Act radically expanded the federal role in cleaning up existing pollution and preventing point sources of pollution—pollution from a single identifiable source such as an effluent pipe. Sharp drops in pollution from sewage and industry resulted.16 An expanded federal role might make some students uneasy, but less so after they see the failures of state-based cooperative pragmatism to control Great Lakes pollution.17 When we walk along the Portage Canal during our class break, looking for signs of environmental change, two bald eagles swoop down, landing on the ice 20 yards away. My students have just read about the debates over DDT, poring through the original research studies done in the Great Lakes that convinced the world of bioaccumulation, thinning eggshells, and plummeting reproductive success. After years of controversy, the research eventually helped lead to global bans on DDT, PCBs, and several other persistent pollutants. The students suddenly understand that is why we can see so many eagles today, and it is why we can watch the peregrines nesting on the lift bridge just west of campus. They all know that Lake Erie had been declared dead in the 1960s and the Cuyahoga River used to catch fire. But they do not know about local efforts at pollution control in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the mayor had to dump perfume in the harbor to deal with the horrible smell because the city and the state were completely unable to force the paper companies to clean up their waste. The DOCUMERICA photos from the Fox River in Green Bay appall them because they have played where the water once ran red in those photos. They also have not heard about the EPA’s first major lawsuit in the early 1970s when the agency sued Reserve Mining Company, which had dumped 400 million tons of asbestos-laden tailing into Lake Superior. Asbestos fibers were dispersed throughout a third of the lake, eventually reaching Duluth, where the drinking water had over a billion fibers per liter.18 Many of them grew up in Duluth or else they have visited the city. It is hard for them to imagine that a mining company was allowed to dump asbestos into their drinking water. And it is an important lesson for them to learn that the state tried to regulate the mining industry for decades, but little improved until the feds stepped in.19 Students assume at first that nobody noticed or cared about pollution back then, but sources show that argument to be too simple. For decades, citizens and states tried hard to control paper and mining pollution. States formed pollution control boards, trying to reach voluntary agreements with industry. But they were rarely successful. When pressured by mayors and governors and state conservation commissions, mining and paper companies simply threatened to pull out and move to another state with weaker laws. For some issues, such as restoring forests and increasing timber production, state agencies were able to do an excellent job, often better than federal agencies. But for water and air pollution from industry, state and towns were ineffective at controlling industry. This leads to a lively discussion: When is community-based conservation most effective, and when do federal agencies lead to better environmental protections? When do voluntary incentives work, and when does industry need strong enforcement threats to respond? How can regulations be designed that do not harm jobs? Environmental history can help students understand when regulations can actually save costs. John J. O’Grady, an EPA staffer, recently noted, “A December draft report from the Office of Management and Budget showing the costs and benefits of EPA regulations was removed from Trump’s site and relegated to President Obama’s archives.” Yet this report contains key information showing that EPA regulations are generally quite cost effective for taxpayers, producing an “average $9 in benefits for every $1 spent towards compliance between 2005 and 2015.” After subtracting the cost of its regulations, the EPA accumulated “$376 billion in benefits.”20 Environmental histories of particular local industries show that environmental regulations have, at times, stimulated industrial growth. The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act spurred on the pharmaceutical industry because it increased consumer confidence.21 Environmental regulations forced the pulp and paper industry in Wisconsin to stop wasting half the fiber from their harvests, eventually saving them significant money. But until regulations forced the industry to develop pollution control technology and stop wasting harvests, it was cheaper to pollute than to innovate. From their regional environmental histories, they also learn another important lesson: grassroots efforts matter. The EPA only shut down Reserve Mining Company’s asbestos dumps into Lake Superior after local citizens spent decades protesting, gathering signatures, showing up at hearings, and working with scientists. Local industries adapted to a level playing field of federal regulations not by picking up and moving out, as they had threatened, but by innovating better pollution control technologies. Having clear federal standards in place meant there was a reason to stop wasting resources. The moral of this story for my engineers is that, important as better engineering can be for the environment, in a democracy, it is not just technology that saves the day—it is grassroots pressure. Ultimately, citizens lead change. The problems seemed insurmountable at times, just as they do today. It can seem hopeless, until suddenly it is not anymore. They also learn about the long history of denialism, helping them make sense of antienvironmental rhetoric today. The strategies now being used to reverse climate policy are familiar from tobacco histories, endocrine disruptor histories, and mercury, lead, and arsenic histories. By casting doubt on research and calling for more studies, industry delayed effective regulation for decades, even when they knew a substance caused injury. Calls for “more research!” became a way of delaying action, keeping profitable drugs and chemicals on the market as long as possible while scientists dueled it out in labs and courts. Historian of science Naomi Oreskes argues that industry lobbyists manipulate scientific uncertainty, often manufacturing a fake debate to dispute emerging scientific consensus. Denialists first argue that the science is uncertain. Then they argue that concerns are exaggerated and the true risks are small, particularly compared to natural risks already existing in the environment. Finally, they state that technology will solve the problem, so there is no need for regulation. The campaigns against environmental and public health regulation involve the same institutions, run by the same people, and funded by the same sources.22 Requiring proof of harm from exposed communities only delayed effective action. Because the history of pollution in the Great Lakes is one of late reactions to growing evidence of injuries, students—even the most conservative ones—begin to articulate the importance of precaution. It seems obvious to them that the burden of proof should be on the producer, not the consumer.23 After seeing the DOCUMERICA photos of dense air pollution in the 1970s, even my most conservative students are appalled to learn half of Americans still breathe dirty air, largely because of fossil fuel emissions. They are even angrier to learn that Scott Pruitt responded to these studies, not by strengthening regulations that lower smog and air pollutants—but instead by ordering the definition of clean air to be dumbed down, allowing filthy air to be called “clean.” My students respond to the principle of fairness. Even before we define and discuss negative externalities, they know that it is not fair to dump your waste in the creek or your smog into the air and then make downstream and downwind neighbors pay for it. I want my students to learn that this one particular place, Lake Superior, is intimately connected to the rest of the globe. It is not a place outside of history; it is a place that experienced near collapse because of unrestrained industrial exploitation—and it is a place that has substantially recovered because of grassroots efforts by citizens, combined with research by scientists, regulations by state and federal agencies and the International Joint Commission, and technological innovations by engineers like them.24 How do these pedagogical reflections from a North American environmental historian apply outside of the classroom? Teaching is a powerful way to change the world, for what happens in our classrooms rarely stays within those stuffy buildings. But teaching is only one step. Our experiences as teachers give us powerful tools for reaching a diverse range of students—tools that we can apply to public scholarship, activism, and even running for office. In my own public scholarship and community activism, I use the same narrative strategies for engaging broader communities that I use in teaching. Rather than assuming that Trump supporters will inevitably deny climate change and work to dismantle environmental protections, I start with environmental histories of our shared places and shared values. I remind my fellow citizens what happened without strong environmental protections, so they can understand what will happen again without them. Even antiregulatory folks can and do respond to these histories, if they are framed in a way that respects smaller government perspectives and helps people make connections between their local places and broader structural forces. Nancy Langstonis professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University. Her most recent book is Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World (New Haven:Yale University Press, 2017). Notes 1. https://www.edf.org/blog/2017/05/25/pruitts-first-100-days-epa-his-most-alarming-actions-so-far. 2. Quote from Noah Hall in Gary Wilson, “The Great Lakes Budget Battle,” Great Lakes Now June 2017, http://www.greatlakesnow.org/2017/06/the-great-lakes-budget-battle-why-we-care/. 3. Nancy Langston, “The Wisconsin Experiment,” Places Journal, April 5, 2017, https://placesjournal.org/article/the-wisconsin-experiment/. 4. Christopher Sellers, “How Republicans Came to Embrace Anti-Environmentalism,” Vox, April 22, 2017, https://www.vox.com/2017/4/22/15377964/republicans-environmentalism. 5. Interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, May 25, 2001. 6. Jo Becker and Barton Gellman, “Leaving No Tracks,” Washington Post, June 27, 2007, A01. 7. Anonymous, Editorial, “The EPA’s Tailspin,” Nature 452, no. 2 (March 6, 2008). 8. Ibid. 9. “The EPA Officially Gets a New Leader,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/the-epa-officially-gets-a-new-leader-scott-pruitt/517176/. 10. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-100-days-environment-earth-day_us_58f87b68e4b0cb086d7e3175. For more details of antienvironmental policies, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/31/donald-trump-worst-things-climate-change-environment and http://time.com/4756797/environment-donald-trump-100-days/. 11. https://www.edf.org/blog/2017/05/25/pruitts-first-100-days-epa-his-most-alarming-actions-so-far. 12. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/09/regulation-buster-trump-takes-aim-at-the-epa.html. 13. Jerry Simmons, “DOCUMERICA: Snapshots of Crisis and Cure in the 1970s,” Prologue Magazine (National Archives) 41, no. 1 (Spring 2009), https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2009/spring/documerica.html. The 15,981 DOCUMERICA images are available online and searchable via ARC: https://www.archives.gov/research/catalog. The images are available in the Still Pictures unit at the National Archives at College Park, MD. Cody Ferguson at Fort Lewis College is researching “a history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the modern environmental regulatory era through the lens of the EPA’s Project DOCUMERICA photo documentary project,” https://www.fortlewis.edu/facultyexperts/FullStory/ferguson.aspx. Caleb Wellum, “The Ambivalent Aesthetics of Oil: Project Documerica and the Energy Crisis in 1970s America,” Environmental History 22 (October 2017): 723–32. 14. See Alessandra Potenza, “When Rivers Caught Fire and Bald Eagles Were Poisoned: Why We Need the Environmental Protection Agency,” The Verge, February 28, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/28/14754660/epa-pollution-climate-change-trump-public-popularity-bipartisan-support. Other examples include Alan Taylor, “DOCUMERICA: Images of America in Crisis in the 1970s—The Atlantic,” The Atlantic, November 16, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/11/documerica-images-of-america-in-crisis-in-the-1970s/100190/; “Documerica: The Photos That Changed How the U.S. Saw Pollution,” accessed June 9, 2017, http://all-that-is-interesting.com/documerica-project; Timeline, “Watch: The Documerica Project Was a Grim But Powerful Look at Our Environmental Failures,” Timeline, April 13, 2017, https://timeline.com/epa-environment-documerica-photography-fe34c3815ea3; Kacy Burdette, “How the United States Looked Before the EPA,” Fortune, accessed June 9, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/02/28/how-the-united-states-looked-before-the-epa/. 15. Doug Stewart, “Will This Lake Stay Superior?” National Wildlife Federation Magazine, August 1, 1993. 16. Frank Quinn, “The Evolution of Federal Water Policy,” Canadian Water Resources Journal 10, no. 4 (1985): 21–33. 17. Terence Kehoe, Cleaning up the Great Lakes (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997); Langston, Sustaining Lake Superior. 18. Langston, “The Wisconsin Experiment.” 19. Langston, Sustaining Lake Superior. 20. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/337108-protect-those-who-protect-us-and-fund-the-epa. 21. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Endocrine Disruptors and the Legacy of DES (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). 22. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2011); Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (Cambridge: Basic/Perseus, 2007); David Michaels and Mindy Jones, “Doubt Is Their Product,” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (2005): 96–101; and Langston, Toxic Bodies. 23. Poul Harremoës et al., Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896–2000 (Copenhagen: Citeseer, 2001), 129–30. 24. D. W. Schindler, “Lakes as Sentinels and Integrators for the Effects of Climate Change on Watersheds, Airsheds, and Landscapes,” Limnology and Oceanography 54, no. 6 (2009): 2349. For modern accounts of the changing Great Lakes, see Jerry Dennis, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004), and William Ashworth, Great Lakes Journey: A New Look at America’s Freshwater Coast (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003). For Great Lakes environmental history, see James Feldman and Lynne Heasley, “Recentering North American Environmental History: Pedagogy and Scholarship in the Great Lakes Region,” Environmental History 12, no. 4 (2007): 951–58, and Langston, Sustaining Lake Superior. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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