Delivering an Environmentally-strong State of the State—the Milliken Way

By Dave Dempsey

As the 1970s began, Michigan’s environment was scarred by decades of pollution and natural resource exploitation. But public opinion here, as across the nation, was crystallizing around dramatic changes in law and policy, making 1970 a milestone in United States environmental history.

Sensing the mood, Michigan Governor William Milliken outlined a sweeping attack on environmental degradation in both his annual State of the State address on January 15, 1970, and a special message to the Legislature solely on environmental issues, on January 22, 1970. “Milliken Urges War on Pollution,” read a Detroit Free Press headline.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State message on January 29 of this year—50 years later—provides an opportunity for her to follow in the Milliken tradition.

“We can’t have prosperity at the expense of posterity,” Milliken told the Legislature in January 1970. “And that is what we are doing—threatening posterity—when we make sewers of our rivers, cesspools of our lakes, and litter of our landscapes.”

Milliken’s proposals included several that became law later in 1970, and some that are still just proposals. The Legislature would approve Milliken’s proposals for a Great Lakes Shorelands act, tougher regulation of solid waste disposal, and more protective air and water pollution standards. Milliken’s call for tougher environmental enforcement instead of reliance on voluntary compliance by polluters was a change in state policy.

But the governor’s proposal to regulate what he called the “blight” of billboard pollution failed to get legislative approval.

Still. it was an auspicious beginning to a year of environmental change. And before it was over, the Legislature would send to Milliken a few historic ideas of its own.

Follow our year-long timeline in 2020 of the 50-year anniversary of the 1970 “Year of the Environment”.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

A memorial service for Governor Milliken—who passed away on October 18, 2019—will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

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