Dave Dempsey Reflects on Lessons Learned after 40 Years of Environmental Advocacy


Above: Appreciating the water cycle and all the many forms it takes, including snowflakes and rainbows over Lake Michigan. (Photo/Kelly Thayer)


By Dave Dempsey

Last month marked the end of my 40th year of environmental advocacy. Looking ahead to 2022 in 1982, I may have thought humans would have colonized the moon by now—or better yet, humans would have become such good stewards of the Earth that professional environmental advocates would be out of jobs.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

I never thought my career would span four decades, but now that it has, looking back—as well as forward—seems fitting. My lens has smudges and blind spots, so consider that as you read. Here are a few lessons of 40 years.

We need laws that consider the whole—and require reduction in pollution in air, water, and land from a single source. Or better yet, laws that prevent pollution in the first place. 

Lessons Learned

As long as we regard the environment in pieces, we will not achieve a healthy and lush Earth. Perhaps in 1970 it made political sense to treat air, water, and land as separate spheres.  But even then we knew—and it is ever clearer now—that we live in a world where all of these are connected. Laws that clean up industrial processes by sending hazardous wastes to landfills or incinerators merely transfer a problem to another medium. Said John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

We need laws that consider the whole—and require reduction in pollution in air, water, and land from a single source. Or better yet, laws that prevent pollution in the first place. 

Our understanding of economic growth is childish, and clinging to it will delay or prevent the environmental recovery we must have. I’ve heard the tiresome refrain from business lobbyists since the day I began working at the Michigan Environmental Council in November 1982: “You can’t have a healthy economy and a healthy environment at the same time.” There was hope that this false dichotomy would change after the release of a United Nations report in 1987 that spoke for the first time of sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

We can no longer operate on the premise that constantly increasing Gross Domestic Product, in a world of exhaustible resources, is the goal of public policy and personal conduct.

But ask anyone on the street what “sustainable development” means, and you will mostly be met by puzzled faces. We can no longer operate on the premise that constantly increasing Gross Domestic Product, in a world of exhaustible resources, is the goal of public policy and personal conduct.

The people lead, and the leaders follow. It’s been said a multitude of times by a multitude of people—if you wait around for presidents, Congress, governors, state legislatures, or your local board of trustees to take the lead on environmental protection, your hair will turn gray before you get action. The Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972 did not happen because of enlightened, futuristic politicians—instead, those politicians were responding to public outrage about waters that were unsafe for swimming and air that was unsafe to breathe.

The business of making laws is not pretty, but it is always better when citizens are driving it and monitoring it.

The business of making laws is not pretty, but it is always better when citizens are driving it and monitoring it.

Future Generations

What about the future? Where should Michigan go now in light of these lessons?

Bold transformative changes are necessary to meet the interconnected challenges of water stewardship and climate change.

First, now is not the time for half measures or tweaking. Michigan has a rare opportunity in 2023 to show national leadership on the environment. That has not been true since the early 1980s, the last time that Democrats in Michigan—who often favor more environmental protections than state Republicans do—held the governor’s office and both chambers in the state legislature. We cannot keep tinkering with the old laws and making minor changes. Bold transformative changes are necessary to meet the interconnected challenges of water stewardship and climate change.

It is just plain wrong that Michigan has 25,000 groundwater contamination sites, rivers and streams don’t meet health and/or water quality standards, and scores of communities whose sewage or drinking water treatment systems are old and underfunded.

Second, clean water must get more than lip service. The public wants clean water, and the state’s residents must communicate that to Governor Whitmer and the legislature. These elected officials, in turn, have the responsibility to enact measures that provide the billions of dollars in state and federal funding needed to make the promise of Pure Michigan real. It is just plain wrong that Michigan has 25,000 groundwater contamination sites, hundreds of places where rivers and streams don’t meet health and/or water quality standards, and scores of communities whose sewage or drinking water treatment systems are old and underfunded.

On such issues as climate change, we have a duty to take decisive action to make the world habitable for our descendants.

Third, Michigan must think more often about its air, water, land and other resources through the lens of 2062 rather than 2022. Elected officials need a vision that goes beyond the next election cycle. This has happened before in Michigan. The forestry pioneers of the late 1800s and early 1900s took the millions of acres of land clearcut and abandoned by the lumber barons and shaped it into a 3.9 million acre state forest system.  None of them lived to see their work come to full fruition. They cared about us. We must do the same for our descendants. On such issues as climate change, we have a duty to take decisive action to make their world habitable.

Will Michigan do this? I have my doubts. Forty years of cynicism are hard to shrug off. But the people of Michigan have shown leadership before, and we can do it again if we choose to do so. Our children and their children are counting on us.

12 comments on “Dave Dempsey Reflects on Lessons Learned after 40 Years of Environmental Advocacy

  1. John H. Hartig on

    Thanks Dave for your 40 years of service to the Great Lakes and its denizens, and for sharing these important lessons. I wonder what you think about Michigan adopting a strong and clear cradle-to-cradle policy. William McDonough and Michael Braungart have provided a blueprint for for such a policy in their book “Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things.” They argue that waste is a product of poor design and promote that waste is food, and that everything is part of a cycle. Their solution is switching from a cradle-to-grave approach to making things to a cradle-to-cradle approach that achieves a circular economy, eliminates waste and ensures the continual use of resources.

    Reply
  2. Steven Ugoretz on

    Wise observations that can, and should, be applied by all of the states, and integrated at the federal and international levels. There has to be consistency at all scales to address world-wide issues. The entire system of production and consumption has to be reformed for sustainability, as you point out so clearly. Keep up the good work and be relentless in your advocacy.

    Reply
  3. Philip Ellis on

    Thank you, Dave, for all you have done and for all you continue to do. Your commitment to water and the environment over these forty years has likely had more impact than you may realize. I am deeply grateful for your efforts and your voice of challenge for our future and, more importantly, the future of those who come after us.

    Reply
  4. Lana Pollack on

    Thanks, Dave, for helping us focus on pathways to more environmental success. One additional prompt would be to think in terms of “protections” rather than “regulations.” Thus we’d be observing that “Democrats favor more environmental protections, than Republicans,” rather than “Democrats favor more environmental regulations than Republicans.”

    Thanks, too, for being my best environmental mentor for the 40 years of advocacy we’e shared.

    Editor’s note: Thank you, Lana! Good point about the more appropriate terminology of “protections” v. “regulations”; the article is edited to reflect your wisdom.

    Reply
  5. Tom Bailey on

    Wise words from a seasoned veteran of Michigan conservation, environmental policy and politics. We are fortunate to have had Dave working for our state, our environment and our people for all these years and we should count it as a great blessing to have his experienced voice now to guide us. We must heed his words. We ignore his advice not only at our peril, but at the risk of our great-great grandchildren’s futures.

    Reply
  6. Lisa Wyatt on

    Warm thanks for your leadership and tireless work to protect our water, Dave.
    You are respected by many. And, your example is compelling inspiration!

    Reply
  7. Derwin Rushing on

    We in Michigan have been fortunate to have such an articulate advocate for the environment. Dave is building a body of work that is singular in its breadth. Dave’s unique ability to explain the legislative process in an engaging and comprehensive manner makes it accessible and understandable; no small thing.

    Reply
  8. Carol Misseldine on

    Humble thanks to you, Dave,for your persistent, energetic and eloquent advocacy on behalf of the Great Lakes.

    Sincere thanks as well for your friendship and for advocating with me for decades.

    Carol

    Reply
  9. Michelle Hurd Riddick on

    You are just the best Dave. Much of the progress we made at the grassroots level was because of your guidance, insights, and availability. You made us all better stewards of our many resources. Michigan is fortunate to have you.

    Reply
  10. Ann Rogers on

    Dave, you are my hero !!
    I wish we could give every legislator, and every board member or commissioner a copy of your essay. How about publishing it in the Record-Eagle?
    Let’s figure out a way to keep these truths front and center.

    Reply
  11. Dan Robinson on

    Thank you so much, Dave, for forty years of great and incredibly impactful work. I know you’ll continue to make a real difference in how we all live within Michigan’s ecosystems. Thanks, too, for the wonderful mentoring you have done for me and so many people, with these comments here being just a small example of that. The lessons you share here are a map we need to follow!

    Reply
  12. Royce Ragland on

    Dave, thank you for 40 years worth of wisdom, and for the beautiful ways you have framed the issues for all of us.
    Royce Ragland, December 16, 2022.

    Reply

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