I have an embarrassing confession to make. Back when I was young and the first car I ever owned was already old, I changed the oil myself and dumped it down a sewer drain near our house in Hoboken, New Jersey. Got out from under that ‘63 Chevy Impala Super Sport with an old refrigerator tray filled with five inky black quarts of oil and poured it all right into the grate on the corner, just as I had seen others do it. Didn’t think twice about it. Didn’t think about it at all back then.
But I’ve thought about it lots in the nearly 40 years since then. It still makes me wince, especially because I think of myself as being environmentally sensitive. My wife and I started to recycle before anyone else we knew, taking bottles down to an Owens Corning glass plant a few miles from our apartment and waiting in line, along with a huge dump truck filled with glass, to weigh the two or three boxes of bottles we had in our trunk. I plant trees every year and water with a drip hose. I commute by train or bus, and walk wherever I can. I reuse paper towels.
So how could I have dumped used motor oil down a storm drain, not once but repeatedly? Simple. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until a neighbor saw what I was doing and told me I shouldn’t. As soon as he said so, I realized he was right. I couldn’t undo what I’d done, though I wanted to. Now I can’t walk by a sewer plate without thinking about my transgressions and about how much of what we know about the world has changed.
I was dumping oil just about a year before the first Earth Day in 1970. Most Americans who are alive today were born after that initial celebration of our planet. They are keenly aware of the natural world around them in large measure because they have been that way all their lives. Unlike me, they never knew a world where it was acceptable (in certain circles anyway) to use storm drains as dumps; where trash was routinely tossed out of moving cars (not me, but I saw plenty); where industry routinely discharged pollution into rivers and streams; and where curbside pickup referred not to recycling but to how you got White Castle hamburgers.
The intimate way we now know the natural world results from a series of environmental achievements in the decades after that first Earth Day. For most Americans today, a place like Love Canal—the notorious toxic dump that the Environmental Protection Agency declared clean a few years ago—signifies a hard-fought victory of public will. For them, the Clean Water Act is a fact of life that bans pollution. For them, living without the Clear Air Act regulations would be a smoggy step backward.
Each of these milestones was accomplished through tough legal and political battles. That is environmental history, and in some ways ancient history. Most people today no longer see environmentalism as a conflict, engaged in courtrooms or on angry picket lines. For the most part, the big environmental confrontations about pollution have already been fought. The important legislation is in place. Regulations are already on the books.
Continued improvement from this point on will be, by its very nature, incremental—a low-intensity war of long duration filled with incidental skirmishes. By contrast to the dynamic action of an earlier era, this could be seen as dull. Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action have been replaced by the pedestrian reality of enforcing existing laws and recording violations. Environmental protection, won with the legal equivalent of cannons, now will be advanced with slingshots and rulers.
That’s not to say all the passion has been drained out of the environmental movement. It has taken something as dramatic as global warming to quicken the pulse of committed environmentalists, even if the problem is so complex that no single action or decisive blow can temper it. Recognizing the threat was just the first step. Convincing Americans—and their elected representatives—to sacrifice now in order to stave off a climactic cataclysm clearly will take more than it did to shame a naive teenager in Hoboken to properly dispose of fouled motor oil. Warnings of rising seas and the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions couldn’t kill sales of the huge Hummer. It took $4 a gallon gas to do that.
For the last few years, an insiders’ debate has raged over the concept that environmentalism is dead. The argument goes something like this: With so many victories secure, and ennui settling in, the old coalitions committed to cleaning up the natural and built environments have dissolved. Nothing of substance has taken their place. This may be an exaggeration, but it has been clear for some time now that environmentalism has been fundamentally transformed. Collaboration has replaced confrontation; conservation has supplanted regulation.
Big corporations, once considered adversaries, now are potential partners because they possess the technical know-how and the dollars to get things done right, especially when government is dragging its feet. The federal government once bore the ecological cudgel into the battle, but in recent years it has retreated. As a result, it has fallen to the states and local governments to patch together their own defense, such as the Northeastern states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, if only to try to shame Washington into taking bolder action.
Where passion once was motivation enough, gimmickry and marketing recently have been used to convince people to save the environment, especially when they think the environment has already been saved. Consumers have become the new environmental superheroes, saving forests by buying flooring approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council; saving energy by replacing serviceable refrigerators with new Energy Star products; saving fossil fuel by buying a hybrid, even though some—like the hybrid Lexus RX 400h—are so loaded with options that they get fewer miles per gallon than many cars with conventional engines. But such green guilt can be easily assuaged by buying credits that support a wind farm in Oregon. Clear conscience is possible even in an SUV.
Over the past decades environmental consciousness has shifted in a way that has brought us full circle. Before the first Earth Day there was little understanding that environmental problems existed. Now there’s a misunderstanding that most of those problems have been resolved, major battles have been won and pollution has been outlawed. What’s actually happened is that we have entered an environmental turning point.
“The 20th century was the era of environmental brawn,” says environmental pioneer John Cronin, now the executive director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries in Beacon, New York. “The 21st century must be the era of environmental brains.”
Navigating this turning point will require a broad re-examination of the way we do things. It also raises questions about why we do what we do. The most basic questions may be these three: What do we mean by clean; what exactly is the environment; and what is the right thing to do?
The chi of clean
Over the last four decades, American society has had to come to grips with its limitations. We have had to learn that environmentalism is less about absolutes than about making choices, often from among several unwelcomed alternatives. Despite making tremendous leaps in technology, we have had to redefine what we mean by clean in order to resolve some thorny environmental dilemmas.
One of the clearest examples of clean’s new meaning came in 2004, when the federal government declared Love Canal clean. That designation meant that so much work had been done on restoring the area around the canal that it could be removed from the list of Superfund sites. The list had been created in the 1980s after a swamp of toxins was found in that working class, Niagara Falls neighborhood. The removal of the infamous dump site from the list was hailed as a victory of environmental awareness over corporate greed.
But it didn’t take much digging to discover that at Love Canal, clean didn’t mean what most people thought it meant. Even though Love Canal was stricken from the Superfund list, nearly all the toxic chemicals dumped there were, and are, still there. Getting it out safely was just one part of the problem. Where to put it afterward was another. So it sits there.
Pumps control groundwater seepage, and the canal itself has been covered over with a deep layer of clay and dirt that is said to be impermeable. Nearly all of the modest post-war homes in the neighborhood have been leveled (although a handful of residents stubbornly refuse to leave, insisting that the dangers have been exaggerated), and a fence has been erected to keep anyone from wandering too close to the underground wasteland.
In 2004 I hiked around the spooky perimeter of that neighborhood on sidewalks that no longer led anywhere, past concrete pads of what used to be modest driveways and past the gnarled trunks of crabapple and other ornamental trees that once shaded the tiny houses in which blue-collar families lived and dreamed. The neighborhood school is gone, the parks are closed and the streets for blocks around are empty.
How did this happen? Like other environmental disasters, it started unwittingly, this time with a dream. The dreamer was William T. Love, a 19th-century huckster who convinced investors that he could channel the power of the mighty Niagara River before it went over the famous falls. He planned to build a canal several miles overland to bring river water to an escarpment near Lake Ontario. The channeled water would there plunge about 300 feet, activating turbines at the base of the escarpment.
This would generate electricity so cheaply that Love planned to give it away in order to entice residents to live in the area. He had taken out options and leases on hundreds of acres of apple and peach orchards, and started to lay out the streets and avenues of what he planned to call Model City, an Industrial Age utopia replete with factories, worker housing, stores and a post office.
Work on the canal started in 1893. After steam shovels dug about 3,000 feet of the canal, debtors came after Love. He fled, leaving the unfinished trench to its ignominious fate. For decades, nearby chemical manufacturers used it as a cheap and convenient dump. When the trench was full of hazardous chemicals, the companies covered it over and gave the land to the local government, with instructions not to build anything on it.
As memories faded and the post-war baby boom created pressure for more housing, a neighborhood grew up around, and eventually on top of the toxic mess. The chemicals began to ooze to the surface in the 1970s, and residents noticed an outbreak of illnesses, some of them catastrophic. Outraged, they demanded government action to clean up the mess.
The other part of Love’s project met a similarly inglorious end. At the start of World War II, the U.S. Army took over much of Love’s land. On the street grid of his Model City, the Army laid out a war city. At its center was a factory to manufacture TNT. Before the war ended, the TNT plant was shut down. The concrete water tower and some of the vacant buildings were used to store radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project. After the war, the government sold off chunks of the land. Some went to local businessmen for an industrial park. Some went to the local towns for a school. And some ended up in the hand of mobsters who created a large, unregulated dump.
The industrial park is still there. So is the school. And the dump has continuously expanded as it repeatedly changed hands. Now licensed and operated by a national company, it has become the largest hazardous waste dump left in the northeastern United States, the place in which all kinds of toxins (including Tom Brokaw’s anthrax-contaminated desk) are buried. Nearby, the radioactive Manhattan Project debris is still there, not far from the middle school or the Model City post office on Model City Road in Lewiston, New York, the last physical vestige of Love’s Utopia.
State and federal officials recognize the injustice of forcing a single community to put up with such hazards for so many years. But New York has been unwilling to close or restrict the dump because opening another is virtually impossible today. Most people understand just what that would mean. Awareness sometimes interferes with change.
After my environmental awakening, I continued to change my own oil, thinking I’d take the used gunk to an approved depository. But in time I had an odd collection of containers filled with old oil, and no one willing to take them without grousing. Since then, I’ve paid to have the oil changed on my cars—not so much because the mechanics can do it better than me, but to clear my conscience by insuring that the dirty oil is taken care of properly.
Finding an adequate repository for pollutants has become a big problem, resulting in contaminated sites all over the country being cleaned up without being cleaned in a traditional sense. A new word had to be created to describe these areas—brownfields. In some instances, huge deposits of harmful industrial debris, such as hexavalent chromium—which has been linked to cancer and other health problems—are simply covered over so houses and apartments can be built above. Even when the Environmental Protection Agency forces big companies like General Electric to clean up PCBs and other toxins they once discharged into U.S. rivers, most of the hazardous material is simply buried on the river bottom.
The new meaning of clean isn’t the only revelation about 21st-century environmentalism. Most people would be surprised to know that the Clean Water Act does not prevent factories from discharging pollution into lakes, rivers and streams. It simply requires them to have a permit to do so. Similarly, the Clean Air Act does not prohibit factories or power plants from spewing hazardous emissions from their smoke stacks. It only requires them to have discharge permits.
What is the environment anyway?
One suggestion to come out of the “Is environmentalism dead?” debate is that the old left-wing, anti-corporate ecology coalition needs to be replaced with something new. Some have suggested that this new model should be based on faith, because religious groups possess unity and power that the environmental movement has never tapped into. Others suggest that corporations have to be seen as part of the solution, a radical change from the past when they were seen as a cause of the problems. This counterintuitive, inclusive thinking—working together to solve a problem rather than squaring off as adversaries in a courtroom—is increasingly finding its way into environmental thinking.
Arizona State University, Stony Brook and other major universities are at the forefront of this new environmentalism, offering cross-disciplinary programs in sustainability that bring together special interests from all over campus. Notre Dame’s new doctoral program, called Global Linkage of Biology, the Environment and Society (GLOBES), incorporates science, technology, business, psychology, theology and law. By looking at the way we live together, we can develop a better understanding of how to protect the resources we most value. Almost nothing is excluded from this global perspective.
“You’d be hard pressed to find any discipline that doesn’t have some role to play in environmental problems,” says George S. Howard, a Notre Dame professor who teaches the psychology of sustainability in the GLOBES program. “One of the things that attracted me to the environment in the first place is that it is the broadest topic in the world. There is no other that needs to use as many intellectual systems as this.”
In his recent book, The Greening of Business, Howard explains how providing alternative sources of energy, like solar power, could drive the U.S. economy for decades, providing both jobs and a solution to the energy crisis while reducing harmful carbon emissions. Such a dramatic shift in attitudes will come about not for environmental reasons, he writes, but for “economic ones” that will benefit consumers directly. Thus, the psychology of the consumer will drive the ethos of the environmentalist.
As more people are enticed into this kind of understanding, there is a greater chance of achieving a lasting environmental peace because laws that outlaw behavior are never as effective as incentives that promote a beneficial act. Many people may already have acquired this perspective but simply don’t know it, just as I was a budding environmentalist but didn’t know it back when I was pouring oil into the Hudson River.
“There are wrong acts and right acts when it comes to the environment, that much is clear,” Howard says. “But there also is a category of acts where it is the circumstances that can make them immoral, or not.” In his view, even my own trespass of pouring motor oil into the Hoboken sewers back before I had reached an environmental awareness was not necessarily wrong because I didn’t know of or understand the hazard it represented. “That’s why,” he says, “you’ve got to have theologians, philosophers and psychologists working on the environment.”
Divining what is right
The evolution of environmentalism in the 21st century has made Solomon-like compromises an almost unavoidable aspect of environmental protection. As understanding of contemporary issues grows, so does the complexity of resolving those disputes. And as the scale of the issues escalates, the cost of doing the right thing soars, forcing previously unthinkable compromises. The era of take-no-prisoners environmental crusades is waning.
It has, in fact, become necessary at times to exploit our resources in order to save them. That’s the strategy used recently by The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization, to protect crucial wild lands in the Adirondack Park in New York. The Adirondack is the largest park in the continental United States—a vast 6-million-acre backcountry of primeval forests, pristine lakes and magnificent peaks. The park also is unique because it represents a mix of public and private land holdings (about half of the area is privately owned).
In 2007, The Nature Conservancy moved quickly to buy 161,000 centrally located acres from venture capitalists who had purchased an old-line timber and paper company. The new owners planned to operate the company’s mill but did not want to own the land from which the company had taken trees for 150 years. However, they did want to recoup the value of the land. With smart negotiators, the conservancy worked out a complex deal valued at more than $110 million, more than the organization could easily raise even if, as planned, it eventually sold most of the land to the state.
The organization surprised many of its supporters by signing a contract with the new owners of the mill. It agreed to sell enough trees and wood pulp at market prices to keep the mill humming for at least 20 years. Instead of hugging trees, the environmental group would be cutting them and hauling them over Adirondack back roads by the ton.
Michael T. Carr, the conservancy’s local director, says the compromise was absolutely necessary to cover the tremendous cost of the acquisition. Besides, he says, it is now possible to harvest trees in a sustainable way that provides job and income while keeping the woodlands intact. “At this scale and with this much land, there’s room for both,” Carr assured me during my recent visit to the Adirondacks.
Environmentalism often is more attractive in the abstract than it is up close and personal. For many people, it is easier to smack a Stop Global Warming sticker on the bumper of an SUV than it is to replace that gas guzzler with a fuel-efficient vehicle. It is easier to urge Congress to vote for a national cap-and-trade program for carbon than it is to lose a job when a local factory has to be shut down. It is one thing to be in favor of alternative energy sources, quite another to be willing to accept hundreds of wind turbines on the horizon outside your own front porch.
In a real sense, this pragmatic new environmentalism has led to a fundamental shift in thinking: In the past, protecting the environment meant deciding what we should not do, and then acting to prohibit those things as completely as possible. Now, more often than not, paving the way for a sustainable world means determining what we should do and how we should do it.
Take, for example, the Hudson River, where some of the seminal battles of the modern environmental movement were fought. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s first voyage up the river that would provide a lifeline for the founding of a nation. In that role, the river would become so horribly polluted with industrial discharges that the great stocks of sturgeon and striped bass would almost disappear.
Today, however, after decades of legal challenges and court decisions, the lower Hudson has been cleaned up substantially, and the fish have returned. The great threat to the river is no longer toxic discharges. Rather, it is the crush of too many people wanting to live too close to the water’s edge. Managing the river and understanding its natural cycles are the challenges now.
John Cronin, the Beacon Institute’s director, understands the transformation better than most. As a member of Riverkeeper, an organization long supported by Robert Kennedy Jr., Cronin spent 17 years crossing swords with nearly every big business on the river, bringing more than 100 lawsuits against polluters and monitoring the discharges of every outfall pipe in the Hudson Valley.
Cronin left Riverkeeper in 2000, sensing that it was time to rethink his approach to the environment. He turned away from courtroom battles and focused on the river itself. He founded the Beacon Institute with a $50 million grant from New York State. Despite misgivings from a few environmental groups that still did not trust corporations, in 2007 he formed a collaborative partnership with IBM.
The corporation will use its data-collecting expertise to help develop a real-time system for monitoring every aspect of the river’s life. Underwater sensors will track schools of fish so that discharges of heated water from power plants are suspended until the fish have moved on. Monitors at the bottom of the river will track clouds of pollution as they move downstream. Remote-controlled submarine cameras can visually check out river conditions and relay signals to computers on land, creating a record about the health of the river that, like a person’s own medical file, could trigger early intervention to keep small problems from becoming crises.
Since 2000, Cronin has spent almost as much time thinking about the new environmentalism as he has spent time on the Hudson in his boat, called Trust. He says he knew a transforming change was taking place the day he went to talk with an executive at IBM headquarters. When he looked out at the company’s parking lot, he saw many cars with kayaks or canoes lashed to their roofs. He realized that the vehicles belonged to company technicians and engineers who were born after the first Earth Day.
Those IBM employees probably never dumped motor oil down a storm grate. Many saw no trade off between environmental sensitivity and working for a corporation—the two come together naturally for them. Cronin says that in the old days of lawsuits and confrontation, all the talent and knowledge those young engineers possessed would have been off limits to the environmental movement.
That, he says, no longer makes sense because corporations have the money and the talent to get things done even when government doesn’t want to or can’t. Bringing both sides together is a matter of getting everyone to see things in the same way, or telling them—as my neighbor in Hoboken told me—what was right.
“Can we really afford to turn them away? Do we even want to? I don’t think so,” Cronin says. “There isn’t room for permanent enemies anymore.”