“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.”
Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
By Lana Pollack
Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.
The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country.In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot.The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.
By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot.Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.
Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus.In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.”Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.
Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school.
How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement?Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant.In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives.
But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection.In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices.Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism.Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM).In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.
Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.
But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home.I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.
Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.
Last month, the International Joint Commission (IJC), created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, released its first triennial assessment of Great Lakes water quality under a new iteration of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In the Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC commended the two federal governments for considerable progress they have made to accelerate the cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, set new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, and establish the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. But it identified a number of areas where progress is lagging. IJC finds that work needs to be increased in several key areas.
Triennial Assessment of Progress
“The IJC identifies specific gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes,” the Commission said. It also criticized the governments for moving too slowly on chemicals of mutual concern and called on EPA and the State of Ohio to go beyond reliance on voluntary measures by farmers to clean up the severe algae problem on Lake Erie.
In a technical document backing up the report, the IJC noted again that public trust principles could be an effective way of dealing with a multitude of Great Lakes problems. The document cited FLOW founder Jim Olson in making this observation. The IJC also referred to public trust principles in two previous reports, after hearing from Jim and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in 2011.
We asked the U.S. Section Chair of the IJC, Lana Pollack, to offer some thoughts on the report. A native of Michigan, Lana has been a distinguished public servant with a resume that includes three terms in the Michigan Senate. President Obama appointed her to the IJC in 2010.
The media coverage of TAP has emphasized the “finding fault with government performance” theme. Is that an accurate summary?
The media is giving short shrift to the high praise we gave to the governments for a lot of good work that IJC recognized, especially AOCs [cleanup of Areas of Concern], indicators and other organizational achievements that has gotten the governments off to a strong start in several important elements of GL restoration.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from the governments so far?
It’s been generally positive. Canadian Section Chair Gordon Walker and I presented the TAP at the recent GLEC [Great Lakes Executive Committee] meeting and found little pushback. They are already moving toward some of our recommendations.
Can you pick out one or two of the policy recommendations you find most important?
Prevention through EPR, or Extended Producer Responsibility where the manufacturer of a product is responsible for its entire life cycle, including disposal. Prevention through call for zero discharge and for infrastructure investments to end sewage being dumped into the Lakes. A call for Ohio to designate open waters of Lake Erie impaired, for enforceable standards on farm pollution, for linking federal farm subsidies to farmers’ implementation of best management practices that we can document reduce pollution, and stronger cleanup plans for Lake Erie that detail who is doing what, when, so we can have accountability for success or failure.
Does the Trump Administration’s climate denial have any implications for the Great Lakes?
Yes, it makes everything harder, because the Trump-Pruitt administration challenges the need for protections and would have essential funding removed.
How if at all do you see the public trust principles FLOW espouses playing into solutions for the Great Lakes problems you’ve identified?
Informed public engagement at the community and regional level is essential to realizing adequate financial and policy support from our local, state and federal governments. Support from responsible, science-based NGOs provides essential pathways for information flow between the scientists, the public and elected lawmakers. FLOW has been an important, informed and effective voice in this process.
On the priority issues that FLOW is focusing on, it’s making significant contributions in educating the public and changing the dialogue with elected officials.
Why, when so many people use and cherish the Great Lakes, are they in mostly fair to poor condition?
Most people do not think a great deal about the connection between public policy and the health of the lakes. They don’t recognize that without strong standards that include protections from pollution and laws that hold corporations and people legally accountable as well as financially responsible, it’s inevitable that the lakes will be polluted. Many people have no idea that the people whom they support are voting in Lansing and Washington to let big polluters off scott free. That’s why organizations like FLOW are so important because they are vehicles for informing the public about the risks to the Great Lakes while they also educate elected officials about the issues and the need for better protections.
Do you have any advice for citizens on what to do with the report?
Read the report for the subject areas and the issues that are most important to you and your community and with that information, make your concerns heard. Call, write, email or visit with your elected representatives and let them know you care. Cite the report to support your positions. Support and work with FLOW and other environmental and conservation groups that are focused on your issues. It’s always better to work in concert with other like-minded individuals. Talk about your lakes to your family, friends, neighbors and others in your circles of influence. You can make a difference.