Progress at Home, What About the Planet?

Photo: a 1970 Earth Day poster at the University of Michigan.

By Mel Visser

April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, a milestone in this country’s environmental history. We asked people of all perspectives to provide us their thoughts on the meaning of this anniversary.

Around the time of Earth Day’s inception in 1970, the rallying cry of “Think Globally, Act Locally” emerged. Fifty years of local action has greatly improved our air and waters, but is Earth any better off? Let’s look back at global/local/environmental evolution to see where we were, where we are, and where we are going.

The Grand Rapids of my youth was a sustainable nirvana. All beverages were purchased in refillable glass bottles; all paper, glass, and metals were recycled (with companies paying to get the materials); backyard gardens supplied vegetables, fruits and berries; eggs came from nearby farms; public transportation prospered, and carpooling was extensively practiced. Broken items were fixed and nothing was thrown away. The main reason for this was that World War II consumed our resources. Gasoline, sugar, paper, and dozens of other necessities were rationed or unavailable.

After the war factories churned out civilian goods like cars, bicycles, refrigerators, and radios. The chemical age offered “Better things for Better Living through Chemistry.” DDT killed pesky mosquitos, fireproof PCBs replaced flammable oils, and plastics brought us all manner of wonder. The United States became the global supplier of automobiles, hardware, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products. Our population boomed and we prospered. Our attitude toward the environment remained as it did during the war: a few dead fish in the river and air that made you choke was the price of progress. Earth could take care of herself.

Municipal sanitary waste, farm runoff, and factory effluents filled our rivers with nutrients and toxics. Weeds choked, rivers died, fish turned belly up, and even the “unpollutable” Great Lakes lost their ability to sustain life. The “price of progress” was questioned. Turning around ingrained practices of freely discharging municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes was difficult and as contentious as today’s politics. Massive federal spending addressed our toilet discharges and laws and regulations were enacted to control industry. Resulting industrial “discharge permits” were viewed as a “license to pollute” by the activist public and cries of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) developed. Industry, the institution that was once perceived as the provider of health, wealth, and comfort was now perceived as an Earth destroying monster.

Other countries recovering from World War II, economically disadvantaged by importing U.S. manufactured goods, desired their own wealth and job creating manufacturing. The American public supported manufacturing’s offshore migration as the natural progression to a service economy, a society of intellectuals, researchers and developers with manufacturing relegated to a lesser developed nation. Earth suddenly became “economically flat,” with low-cost producers supplying global needs. Nations eager to raise their citizenry from poverty jumped onto this concept. The locus of global manufacturing shifted East where terrible working conditions, rape of the environment, and cheap coal for energy were major components of low-cost. Our economically flat world became environmentally warped!

Acting locally has gotten us clean air and water, but what has it done for Earth? Aren’t we rather arrogant to relish our environment while importing cheap manufactured goods made by people choking on their air and vomiting from their water? Will countries continue to meet carbon dioxide emission targets by sending manufacturing to countries without targets? Sustainability of climate and health demands a much less myopic view of Earth thinking/acting than the first 50 years of celebrating Earth Day has given us.

Mel Visser was born in Grand Rapids, educated in Houghton, and worked in Portage, Michigan. As the executive in charge of environmental compliance at a major Michigan chemical manufacturer, Mel served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Great Lakes Regional Corporate Environmental Council (Founding Cochair), and the State’s Innovative Technology Task Force. Unable to understand why banned chemicals remained at hazardous levels in the great Lakes, in retirement Mel traveled and researched the issue, culminating in his book Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy (MSU Press 2007). Mel and his wife Gloria now split their time between Portage and their condominium in Hancock. Mel serves on the Community Advisory Group to the Kalamazoo River PCB contamination site and is active in Great Lakes contamination and climate issues at Michigan Tech.

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