“Wilderness, Water and Rust” – A conversation with author Jane Elder

Longtime Great Lakes advocate Jane Elder’s new book, Wilderness, Water and Rust, (available from Michigan State University Press) is a compelling story of both progress and backsliding in policies and practices affecting the Lakes.

It is also a memoir of growing up in Michigan and more than 40 years of fighting for a clean environment and the “crown jewels” of Michigan’s national forest legacy, wilderness. Jane headed the Sierra Club Midwest office in Madison, Wisconsin, leading the Great Lakes program. She holds degrees from Michigan State University (BA, communications) and University of Wisconsin (MS, land resources), and was awarded distinguished alumni status by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in 2019. We asked Jane to discuss her book and its implications.

Tell us what the book is about.

The book is part memoir of environmental issues I have worked on in the Great Lakes region over the course of my career, with a focus on public lands, including wilderness areas, and Great Lakes water quality and ecological health.

It is also a critique of policy—what has worked, what hasn’t, and the challenges we face with advancing positive public policy to protect the environment and public health in these times. A theme that runs through the book is that the region’s boom and bust economic cycles (thus the “rust” part of the title) have hurt both human communities and left behind a legacy of environmental damage, and that we need to break out of that pattern for people and the rest of nature to thrive.

What is your opinion of the response of government over time to the problems of the Great Lakes?

Well, I don’t mean to be flippant, but in simplest terms, the government response has been insufficient or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There’s a full section toward the end of the book that talks about the barriers to effective policy and practice.

Part of the challenge is the siloed nature of how governments attempt to “manage” connected, living systems; part of the challenge is that the primary planks of environmental law in the U.S. we established many decades ago, and we’ve had no significant updates or expansion of since. Backsliding, such as the Supreme Court interpretation of the wetland protections in the Clean Water Act, is eroding what we thought was solid policy.

There have been so many advances in environmental science and analytics over the last 50 years, and so many lessons learned, but we’re stuck in time. Certainly we know by now, that voluntary measures to reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture haven’t done the job, but a broken Congress, a Farm Bill that incentivizes high-input commodity crops, and a Clean Water Act that can’t regulate agricultural pollution are the barriers that prevent new solutions.

How worried should we be about climate change, and how worried should we be about the issue of climate migrants to the Great Lakes region?

Let’s not encourage worry. The threats are very serious, but worry does not change policy. I’m a strong advocate for the Great Lakes region having a cohesive plan to help the lakes, land and region foster as much resilience as we can in the face of disruptive climate change. The complexity of the government role in Great Lakes management—two nations, dozens of Indigenous governments, state, provincial governments, and local governments means there are dozens of agencies working in this space, but no one is charge of the big picture plan for the lakes. It is no one’s job. A project I’m working on with the Great Lakes Ecoregion Network is to propose a common set of goals and a framework of priorities, principles, and prescriptions so that all these agencies are pulling together toward common goals.

On climate migration, I’m certainly no expert, but certainly, governments should have a policy on how to house and employ climate migrants. Unfortunately, governments have a tendency to reactive instead of proactive–we usually wait for disasters to happen first.

Have we solved the problem of toxic substances in fish?

No. While levels of some contaminants that we were very worried about have certainly declined –I’m thinking of some of the nasty dioxin compounds, for example, PCBs dropped for a long time, and then started to level off—it isn’t quite steady state, but reductions aren’t where one might hope they would be after so many decades. Mercury is still very present in the Great Lakes and inland lakes, and part of that is the global sources, for which there are insufficient diplomatic mechanisms to reduce emissions from artisanal gold mining and coal-burning power plants around the world. PFAS, are, (sorry about the pun) a whole different kettle of fish.

What would you say is the one thing of your career that is the most discouraging about the Great Lakes?

How is it that in 2024, we still don’t have a precautionary approach to toxic chemicals? We have strict protocols before any new medicines come on the market, and lots of regulations for food safety, but industry and commerce can introduce thousands of synthetic chemicals into the environment every year and then say, “Oh, sorry about that” when something like PFAS turns out to have serious downsides and the cleanup costs almost always get borne by the public. It isn’t smart, ethical, or logical, but here we are.

Why is the time in which you advocated unique?

I describe it as the “golden era,” because we were moving potent policy forward year after year. Congress, while not perfect, functioned, and part of that was bipartisanship. When presidential administrations moved into anti-environmental directions, public response was enormous and had an impact – I’m thinking about the reactions to James Watt and Anne Gorsuch Burford. George Bush (the first) felt compelled to say he wanted to be the “environmental president.” Courts seemed more balanced then, and were another pathway to moving policy forward, and there were significant decisions that expanded environmental protections. Today’s partisan-divisiveness has fundamentally changed the democratic process.

What would you tell a young person just starting out a career as a Great Lakes advocate?

My first reaction was, gird your loins, sweetheart, this is no picnic. More thoughtfully, I would urge them to consider what motivates them to want to show up and work hard, and to look for opportunities to feed that passion. Additionally I would urge them to look for opportunities where advocacy can drive system change. Individual behavior change is helpful, but the big need is in changing systems that perpetuate environmental degradation and economic disparity, and corporate gain over community health and resilience.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Great Lakes? If so, why and if not why?

The short answer is “no,” I’m not optimistic but it isn’t that simple. When you look at the scale of environmental threats to the Great Lakes ecoregion, and the pace at which climate change and extinction are marching forward, it is easy to conclude that playing Pollyanna’s “glad game” isn’t much of a strategy. I don’t believe that technology or the market will “save us” but that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel.

In the book I write about Vaclav Havel’s distinctions between optimism and hope. I love his statement about hope being “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” And I close that chapter with the statement:” … it is good to strive for life, and beauty, and wholeness, and we don’t know where and when the expected breakthroughs will come. If we don’t try, they most certainly won’t. And maybe, just maybe, they will surprise us and reward us and future generations in ways beyond our imagination.”

One comment on ““Wilderness, Water and Rust” – A conversation with author Jane Elder

  1. Mary JoKurtz on

    A hopeful, yet realistic look at Great Lakes advocacy. Thanks to ALL who are allies of water conservation! How IS it that pollution is still a problem for our Great Lakes. Thanks to Jane Elder!


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