An informal poll of Great Lakes lovers gave a clear victory to Lake Superior. It holds as much water as the other four Great Lakes combined (plus three Lake Eries), has 2,726 miles of shoreline, and has a turnover time of 173 years. In the words of one respondent to a recent informal survey, “Every time I look at it I am convinced I am at the edge of the world.”
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
By Dave Dempsey
With the Winter Solstice and the darkest day of the year behind us, it’s time for a little light.
I recently posted a survey on both Twitter and Facebook asking followers and friends to name their favorite Great Lake and to explain their allegiance. The answers were both quantitative and qualitative.
The quantitative results came from a Twitter poll. Because Twitter offers only four options for a poll, I chose to leave out Lake Ontario but invited voters with allegiance to that lake to make comments about it. That didn’t satisfy Ontariophiles, who felt slighted and said so. Here are the results for the remaining Great Lakes, out of 571 votes cast:
Such polls are grossly unscientific, but it was nevertheless a surprise that Erie topped Michigan in the voting.
The qualitative results reflect respondents’ insights.Dr. Nancy Langston, a distinguished professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University and author ofSustaining Lake Superior and the just-releasedClimate Ghosts, offered a simple explanation for her vote: “Why? Because it is superior!”
Jeff Padden, a former Michigan legislator whose 10-year voting record expressed his strong environmental values, stands up for Erie. “At least for today, it is my favorite. It could be named Lake Lazarus, since it came back from the dead. Its resurrection is vivid proof that public policy matters.”
David Ruck, founder ofGreat Lakes Outreach Media and creator of the new documentaryThe Erie Situation, chooses Lake Michigan. “I grew up next to it and it has taught me as much as any education about the world, possibilities, using my imagination, and love.”
Katie Wolf vouches for Huron “for its miles of undeveloped shoreline and natural, wild beauty. The abundance of historical maritime treasures both along the shores and underwater offer a lifetime of mysteries to explore, research and photograph. Sunrises and sunsets from the Presque Isle Peninsula are spectacular, too.”
As I mentioned, Lake Ontario has its adherents, too. Sharon Cottle wrote, “Lake Ontario for me. I have lived all my life within a couple of miles of her. Don’t mess with her when she gets mad, yet she can look like an infinity pool at times. Love the others too.”
And by “the others,” could we also mean Lake St. Clair? My colleague Diane Dupuis argues, “My favorite has to be Lake St. Clair, the essential yet perpetually omitted “pretty darn great” lake whose absence would mean quite a portage for Great Lakes freighters laden to the Plimsoll line. Lake St. Clair is born out of the world’s largest freshwater delta: unique by definition. By square feet it ranks #15 in the country, but by recognition it ranks zero in the Great Lakes Basin.”
It was Tony Infante who had, in my mind, the correct answer (although they’re all correct to someone). “Is this a trick question? It’s easy: Huron-Michigan, actually two Great Lakes, make one Grand Lake.”
That’s right. The one Great Lake that gets no respect is Lake Huron-Michigan (or Michigan-Huron).
When North Americans are asked to identify the largest lake in the world, many of them single out Lake Superior. But they’re wrong. Russia’s Lake Baikal is the largest by volume. Lake Michigan-Huron is the largest by surface area at 45,300 square miles. Superior is a mere 31,700 square miles and Baikal, a mere 12,248.
Why isn’t Lake Huron-Michigan widely recognized by the public? It has a single water level. But nature has designed it in such a way as to fool the human mind. Linked only by a five-mile strait, the Michigan lobe and the Huron lobe resemble fraternal twins. One is dotted by large cities, and heavily industrialized at one end. The watershed of the other is lightly populated, and the lake/lobe has been all but forgotten.
The converse of the above is the remarkable diversity of Lake Michigan-Huron. Sandy and stony shores, majestic cities and legally designated wilderness, sturgeon and salmon, the hush of the north and the anxious intensity of the Midwest, the maple leaf and the Stars and Stripes. There is no other lake close to it in all the world.
When a book of history you’ve written becomes history itself, this not only makes you feel old, but also gives you a chance, in hindsight, to see how accurate it is.
Twenty years ago, in 2001, the University of Michigan Press publishedRuin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader. It was a book I’d long wanted to write. Based on 20 prior years of learning the environmental history of Michigan on the job, I attempted to put in perspective the good and bad in the state’s management of its natural resources.
Despite the catastrophes marking Michigan’s environmental history, I intended the book to capture a stirring story of citizen action to rebuild and protect the air, water, forests, fish and wildlife–and human health–since Michigan became a state in 1837. I was fortunate that the book received a generally warm welcome.
But now it’s time to look back. Although I’m pleased with much of Ruin and Recovery, I also see its flaws. They’re considerable. Here are a few; the book was:
Intended to cover Michigan’s environmental history as a state, but in doing so it said virtually nothing about the people who lived here for approximately 10,000 years before that. How did they live in relation to the landscape and waterscape? How did their ways and practices affect these peninsulas?
At 368 pages, too long for many readers.
Simplistic in its faith that Michigan would become a conservation leader among the states again.
This faith was founded on the finding that Michigan had lived through several cycles of destruction and healing. First, rapacious logging companies stripped Michigan of its white pine, and market hunting and fishing devoured wildlife and aquatic life.
Then citizens organized and successfully pressured state legislators to create forest reserves and commit to a plan of sustainable harvest. They also compelled legislators to enact legislation establishing harvesting seasons and rules.
Similarly, when pollution blackened the sky and poisoned the water, it was citizens who clamored for the cleanup laws that distinguished Michigan among the 50 states.
I projected that this would happen again as new challenges occurred, including urban sprawl, climate change, and new forms of air and water pollution.
So far, I’ve been wrong. Not because of lack of concern among Michigan’s residents, but because of a political culture resistant to–and designed to be resistant to–the wishes and forces of the public. And also because of social changes that limit the amount of volunteer and advocacy time available to the public.
Some readers have even joked darkly that the book should be renamed Ruin and Recovery and Ruin Again. I can’t go that far, or anywhere near it.
I still take heart from examples of Michigan’s past.
Charles Garfield, a Grand Rapids banker, for 20 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s advocated that the state create a public forest system to replace cutover, fire-charred acres of Northern Michigan. Today, the Department of Natural Resources manages3.9 million acres of state forests.
Joan Wolfe, a citizen advocate living in Belmont, organized and led a coalition of interests that overcame polluter resistance to win state legislative approval of theMichigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) in 1970. Today, MEPA stands tall as a landmark law empowering the public.
As Joan said in summarizing the work to enact MEPA, “To me the greatest lesson is: ‘None of us is as smart as all of us,’ and ’Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.’”
There is no time to fall back on cynicism. And there is no purpose in apathy. Michigan’s environmental challenges are too great. The impulse for environmental recovery in Michigan has always begun with its public. Today, it must again.
If it does, 20 years from now an environmental historian can write Ruin and Renewal: Michigan’s People Rise Again.
“Our bodies are mostly water. Water connects us to everything around us that is alive,” says award-winning poet Alison Swan. “The water and the land are inseparable from one another. Stop and think to yourself: How does what’s happening to the land around this water impact the water supply of essentially the world? Because water flows all over the surface and below the surface of earth.”
Throughout 2021, FLOW is developing and sharing a series of video interviews with key supporters and stakeholders who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade. We hope you enjoy theses stories and reflections and share them with others who might be inspired to join us in protecting freshwater for all.
Watch a video of Alison Swan below.
“FLOW is really good at inspiring. Dave Dempsey is a master of inspiration,” adds Alison, who references an inscription that Dave, FLOW’s senior policy advisor, wrote 20 years ago in her copy of his book Ruin & Recovery. “I hope you always love and care for the majesty of the dunes, the lake, and all the creatures,” Dave wrote to Alison’s daughter Sophie, who was then 2 years old. “I’m glad you have parents who know the importance of these timeless things.”
“I really can’t think of a better person than Dave Dempsey to fight on behalf of the Great Lakes and the Sixth Great Lake (the groundwater under our feet).”
A true watershed moment: As FLOW in 2021 marks our first 10 years of groundbreaking work on behalf of public trust rights and responsibilities in the Great Lakes, we honor two of the most ardent champions of public water and most inspiring leaders in the Great Lakes watershed. To ignite FLOW’s next 10 years of forward thinking and momentum, as exemplified by Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, FLOW and our community of local, regional, and international partners are recognizing, honoring, and ensuring the continuing influence of these two visionary leaders to protect public water in the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW Founder & Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson
For nearly 50 years Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, has been an ardent and effective environmental, water, and public interest law advocate and champion. He has developed a deep knowledge and understanding of public trust principles and law as they apply to the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes Basin. Jim is a graduate of Michigan State College of Law (Detroit College of Law) and has an L.L.M. Degree in public lands, natural resources, and environmental law from the University of Michigan Law School. He received the Champion of Justice Award in 2010, one of the highest honors of the Michigan Bar Association, and was named a Michigan Lawyer of the Year in 1998 for his work on environmental and water citizen suit laws. Jim has lectured in Brazil, Canada, and the United States, and has written numerous articles and essays and three books. He was featured in two eminent documentary films on water, “FLOW: For Love of Water” (2008) and “Blue Gold” (2008).
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Jim Olson below:
FLOW Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey, with long-time friend and colleague Lana Pollack
FLOW senior advisor Dave Dempsey has 40 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes and water protection. Dave has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and law from Michigan State University. He has served as an adjunct instructor in environmental policy at both universities.
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Dave Dempsey below:
Central to ensuring the ongoing impact of Jim’s and Dave’s achievements is the establishment of a special fund dedicated to securing the legacy of their leadership and the deepening influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental public policy. Gifts to the Olson-Dempsey Fund will support FLOW’s ongoing mission to educate about the power of public trust law, underscoring the rights and responsibilities of the public and public officials. By underwriting public presentations, communications initiatives, and engagement activities, the Fund will shine a light on the power of the public trust to inform law and science-based policy protecting the Great Lakes and will help to expand and sustain the application of the public trust doctrine as a key legal and policy instrument to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW publicly announced the Olson-Dempsey Fund on September 21, 2021, at our 10th anniversary celebration. Donors may add to the Fund through gifts and grants of all levels. Multi-year pledges and structured/planned gifts are welcome. Contact Diane Dupuis at [email protected] with questions about giving, or visit our online donation portal to make a gift now.
FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts that Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey have made on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.
Traverse City, Mich.—FLOW is celebrating our 10th anniversary of keeping the Great Lakes public and protected and kickstarting the next 10 years.
Founded in 2011 by Jim Olson and directed since 2012 by Liz Kirkwood, both environmental attorneys, FLOW is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all. Independent and nonpartisan, FLOW works with the public and decision-makers to hold the government accountable in protecting and providing access to public waters.
Notable highlights of our 10th anniversary year and celebration include:
Tuesday, September 21, from 7:00-8:00 pm EDT—“Confluence”—FLOW’s marquee 10th anniversary event, live-streamed and emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting. Free and open to the public, the online event will include a special honor for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, and promises a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests, and prize-drawings for Patagonia gear! Register here.
The addition of FLOW’s first-ever full-time legal director, an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW in July, after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by Jim Olson.
Video reflections by FLOW supporters, staff, and collaborators who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade—meant to inspire everyone to join us in protecting freshwater for all. See the video series here.
Release of a penetrating groundwater-protectionreport—Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency—and fact sheet authored by Dave Dempsey and conveyed via webinar. See FLOW’s groundwater program page for more.
“There isn’t another FLOW. There are many worthy environmental organizations but there isn’t another FLOW,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “So I think that FLOW, although it’s not a political organization, it’s a deeply education organization. That has to come first before people will understand and demand of their government representatives protection for their most magnificent home.”
Watch Lana’s testimonial below.
For 10 years, FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW staff, supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them, and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin. We hope you will find their words and deeds inspiring. Read more of those reflections here.
“It’s so simple, it’s so basic, and it’s often overlooked. It’s another long-term, generational educational effort that needs total place for people to understand that governments, at any period, at any place, hold the environmental entities of their regions in trust for all generations—not there to be given away, used up, sold, contaminated, forgotten about, taken for granted.”
Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.
By Dave Dempsey
Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.
Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.
September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.
FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit.
Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.
Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin.
Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:
Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system.
The average age of septic systems was 28 years old.
Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system.
Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.
Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.
Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.
Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.
Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.
Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
“FLOW is responsible for the major success we’ve had so far as a movement in halting the Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac,” said FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey in this testimonial about the impact we’ve had during the past decade.
During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin.
“Without the public trust doctrine that Jim Olson and Liz Kirkwood have been advocating, that pipeline would be set to operate for another 50 years, and I think we’re in a position to shut it down, thanks for FLOW’s work on this. I think of the public trust doctrine as the key that can unlock all the environmental doors for us. It can protect our water, protect our air, protect us from climate change. It’s the secret weapon.”
Watch a video below of Dave Dempsey’s testimonial:
Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.
Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.
I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.
But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.
By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).
Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.
That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.
Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.
These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.
I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.
One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.
Photo: Dave Dempsey (right) appears at the Michigan Union together with (l-r): moderator Jen Read, UM Water Center; Clare Lyster, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Margaret Noodin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Photo by Diane Dupuis.
Since the beginning of Michigan as a state in 1837—the starting point of my book, Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader (University of Michigan Press, 2001)—we’ve had several resource binges. First, we took a heavily timbered state and consumed over 90% of the resource in less than 50 years, leaving behind what commentators have called “a burned-over, cutover wasteland.” Then we fouled the waters, first with mill waste and raw sewage, then with persistent toxic chemicals. Then we consumed the land, building unsustainable communities crawling across the landscape.
How could these things happen? Didn’t people care about their own children and grandchildren? I think most did. But they believed in something I call “the myth of inexhaustibility.” The myth holds that despite our great numbers, the world is so plentiful in resource riches that humans cannot exhaust them.
This played out in Michigan as elsewhere. In the late 1860s, timber interests estimated there was so much white pine in our state that it would last 500 years. Most of it was gone in two generations.
Later, the experts said our waters, including the Great Lakes, were so plentiful they would absorb and “purify” the wastes. Before long, Michiganians were dying of typhoid and cholera because their drinking water supply intakes were downstream of cities discharging raw sewage.
When Michigan awoke with hangovers from the first two binges, public-spirited women and men, volunteer conservationists and environmentalists, fought successfully for societal healing. Citizens pressured public officials to take over the cutover lands, plant trees and initiate mostly sustainable forestry, and build the largest state forest system east of the Mississippi. Similar events occurred in the Great Lakes states most like Michigan—Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Citizens pressured public officials to attack raw sewage and industrial wastes, including the early persistent toxins like DDT and PCBs. Over a period of 50 years, Michigan displayed national leadership. For example, Michigan was the first state to cancel the registration for DDT after it showed up in alarmingly high levels in Great Lakes fish.
Whether we’re going to have a similar healing cycle for our use and misuse of land is an open question. There are hopeful signs, but our “Tale of Two Cities”—central cities and all the other cities—still reeks of institutional racism, flawed economic thinking, and personal prejudices.
And don’t get me started on climate change.
I’ve had a front-row seat in the environmental policy theater for 30 years as Michigan and Wisconsin have denied, delayed and degraded serious answers to the climate crisis. Like the public officials who facilitated the gluttonous consumption of our forests and waters, we’ve been misrepresented for those three decades by officials eager to please short-sighted interest groups for today’s gain. Two lost generations.
So we continue to suffer these periods of ruin and recovery, degradation followed by healing. And we need recovery now. Will we have it?
Yes, if we learn.
If we heed the lessons of the past, there is abundant hope.
It starts with those who envision the future, who see where our patterns of resource exploitation will take us if unchecked. In both the forest and water ruins of our history, individuals saw early what was happening and fought to prevent it, or at least to cure it.
In 1900, Charles Garfield, one of our first citizen forestry advocates, said, “Some time it may be, our state shall be so ruled by men of vision and men of taste—sometime, it may be fondly hoped, our legislature shall have the leisure from the petty politics and the strident voice of the lobbyist and the crank to turn its attention to the State of Michigan—to renew its waste places with forest life—to make this peninsula, which is bound to shelter 10,000,000 of people, as beautiful as God intended it to be.” Garfield was instrumental in making it happen.
In 1878, Robert Kedzie of the state health board warned, “A systematic pollution of our rivers has already begun in our State … any one can easily see that these evils will come in with an increase in our population, unless they are excluded by timely precaution on the part of the public authorities. The evil can be successfully resisted or averted only by combined opposition.” Kedzie called for development of sewer systems designed to prevent stream pollution. His advice was ultimately heeded—after much damage was done.
These men and women educated, they battled and lost, they persisted and ultimately, they prevailed. I can scarcely convey how moved I was when, pawing through papers in the State Archives, I came across a citizen petition to the Governor of Michigan urging action to conserve forests and fish—in the 1870s. These were people looking ahead, a few voices compared to the loud societal chorus demanding consumption now.
Probably the most important lesson to take from that history is the one I didn’t learn in political science, but learned the hard way: our so-called leaders don’t lead, they follow. We are the leaders, if we choose to be.
Today we have many voices urging a better way that meets today’s needs without sacrificing those of tomorrow. At least at the state level in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, they are making gradual progress.
Another big step toward forging a sustainable future is to behold a history larger than those that I’ve described in my books. The place now called Michigan did not really begin in 1837. The ecosystem known as the Great Lakes did not really begin in the 17th Century, when the first Europeans arrived. I wrote only about those histories because they were all that I felt qualified to discuss. But in the context of history as a whole, they are a tiny fraction of time—although an overwhelming majority of the resource consumption.
I’ve been happy to see a steady growth in public consciousness about the Great Lakes. We no longer take them for granted. Each year, we care a little more, and do a little more. Most importantly, we no longer subscribe to the myth of inexhaustibility. We are understanding that despite their size, the Great Lakes are fragile, vulnerable; that we need to take care of them. We are making changes.
Drunk on Development
As the governments of Canada and the U.S. were negotiating a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978, a group of scientists from both nations urged them to build the new pact around the concept of ecosystems. Instead of looking at the Great Lakes as separate holding ponds, aquatic highways, or waste receptacles, the governments should pledge to regard them as an interconnected system of water, land and all life forms. In that way, we would base policy on the idea of looking at effects systemwide instead of in isolation.
To make the point, a Canadian scientist named Jack Vallentyne presented to the members of the International Joint Commission (IJC). Jack, who in retirement became “Johnny Biosphere,” teaching kids about ecosystem concepts, had something special in mind for the commissioners.
Standing in front of the commissioners and onlookers, he produced a bottle of whisky and four glasses from under a table that served as a bar. He poured a shot of whisky into the first glass, two into the second, four into the third, and eight into the fourth glass.
“Commissioners,” he said, “you and our leaders of government and industry believe that constant growth is a good thing. I am going to drink this whisky the way you say our society should grow.” He promised to drink one glass each ten minutes, and began making his formal presentation. It discussed growth as an exponential function – constant growth meaning a doubling of the initial quantity over constant intervals of time. Just like his body, Vallentyne said, the Great Lakes Basin had limits of adaptability to the stresses of population growth and technology.
Vallentyne took a second drink, blinked and cleared his throat. He explained the ecosystem approach, citing acid rain, road salt and toxic chemicals as examples of problems affecting water quality that couldn’t be addressed by considering only water.
After the third drink, a reporter in the front row of the audience gasped loudly, “My God, it really is whisky!” Growing more theatrical with his ingestion of the liquid, Vallentyne demonstrated that there is no “away” in nature by crumpling a piece of paper and throwing it to the floor in front of the commissioners.
“After the fourth drink my hands instinctively went to my chest as the whisky burned down my throat. After regaining my breath, I spent the better part of a minute looking unsuccessfully for the summary sheet of my text.” Knocking himself on the head, Vallentyne realized the summary sheet was the one he had wadded up and hurled to the floor. He read it “cool and collected” to the commissioners.
The commissioners verified the validity of Vallentyne’s stunt by sniffing the bottle—which did contain whisky, though diluted by tea. The chair of the Canadian section of the IJC told a Canadian Broadcasting Company reporter that Vallentyne’s presentation had been “a simply staggering performance.”
That was Jack Vallentyne—a brilliant scientist willing to drink too much in public to prove a vital point. He and his scientific colleagues prevailed, and the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement ushered in a new ecosystem approach for these magnificent waters. It’s significant that he told this story, again, in a paper he authored for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, “Managing the Great Lakes Basin as Home.”
I hope we won’t have to get drunk to chart a new course for the histories we’re going to make. I don’t think we will. People ask me, “Do you think we are going to be able to turn things around in time?”
And I say “yes, because we have to.”
I believe human beings are resourceful, and can choose life over extinction if they are determined to.
And I believe the histories future speakers talk about in the year 2120—100 years from now—will be ones that talk about how we came to our senses, and learned to live sustainably in Michigan, in the Great Lakes region, and globally.