CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Earth Day 24

Cleveland Comhrá: Our Little Blue Dot

By Bob Carney

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”  This quote by British Polar explorer and advocate for the protection of Antartica and renewable energy, Robert Swan, strikes to the core to the biggest problem facing the environmental movement worldwide.

1969 was a momentous and turbulent year in the history of our planet. NASA made good on JFK’s promise to put a man on the moon, and on July 20, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step foot there.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing as Americans questioned the cost in the lives of their sons and daughters being lost there. A music festival on a farm in New York grew into a cultural phenomenon.

The Beatles played their last public performance together. PBS was established and Sesame Street would become one of the building blocks for educating out children. August 14, 1969, Britain deployed troops in the north of Ireland and the violence there escalated.

We were also becoming more eco-aware in the United States. The Cuyahoga River was one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and on June 22, floating pieces of oil soaked debris were ignited from sparks from a passing train.

The Day the River Caught Fire
As far as fires on the river, it was relatively small in comparison to some of the previous fires that occured. The flames reached as high as five stories and it lasted about a half hour.

Damage was minor, $50,000 worth of damage to a bridge and trestle belonging to Norfolk and Western Railway Co. No photos were taken and the news made page 11 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But the timing was everything. Cleveland was the first major city in America to elect a African-American mayor. The national media was paying a lot of attention to Carl Stokes and everything that was happening in Cleveland.

Time Magazine picked up the story of the fire to coincide with a piece on eco-awareness. Time aquired a photo of a larger fire from 1952 on the Cuyahoga and put it on the cover. That coverage brought the pollution and shame of what we had been doing to our rivers and lakes across the nation into the light.

Inspired by the fire and voters, Congress set out to clean up the problem of pollution. In Cleveland, Carl Stokes pushed hard for legislation to clean up Cleveland’s waters. His  brother Louis Stokes would do the same in Congress.

With the support of the nation, on the first of January 1970, the National Environment Policy Act was signed into law and helped to establish the Environmental Protection Agancy (EPA). The EPA in turn put forth the Clean Water Act in 1972, which stated that all rivers in the United States be  clean enough to  safely allow mass amounts of swimmers and fish within the water by 1983.

Since the fire, Northeast Regional Sewer District has invested $3.5 billion towards the purification of the river and neighboring sewer systems. The river is now home to over sixty species of fish, and wildlife can be found along it’s banks.As a result of that little fire, a global awareness of the severity of the effects of man on the planet occured and became a catalyst in inspiring the first Earth Day.

Earth Day 24

Earth Day
April 22, is now observed in 193 countries and marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. Prior to 1970, there were no regulations or legislature to stop anyone from dumping garbage, sewage or toxins into the water we drink or the air we breathe.

In Richard Nixon’s State of the Union Address, he stated, “Restoring nature to it’s natural state is a cause beyond political party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

During the next few years, Congress passed several legislative measures giving the EPA the authority to establish national pollution standards and the tools to enforce them. As a result, according to agency data, automobile emissions of common pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide have been reduced 99%. Lead levels in children tested have dropped from 88% to 3%.

The numbers of waters in our country that meet federal water goals has doubled since 1972. The EPA would never have been established if not for public demand. The first administrator of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus said, “Public opinion remains absolutely essential for anything to be done on behalf of the environment.”

In 2017, I had the opportunity to sit down with Rep. Marty Sweeney. We were discussing some of the issues of the day concerning us, and the previous years algae bloom, which was all over the news. Rep. Sweeney stated, “There is always a “sexy” something, the issue of the day that the media and politicians latch onto.” 

Often times the issue is forgotten or pushed to the side as some new “sexy” thing is fed to us. Scarier still, is the discourse that is prevalent in today’s political clime. Some in Nixon’s party, view anything to do with climate or environmental issues as an attack on conservative values. So much for a common cause.

Earth Day observances are important, they can help educate and bring these important issues back into the light where they need to be. The focus this year is on the reduction of plastic production of 60% by the year 2040.

Plastic has it’s place in our lives, shampoo and other products we use in our daily lives could become dangerous if stored in glass containers, but we don’t need it in our oceans, land fills, food and our own bodies. Medical scientists are still debating the effects of micro plastics in our bodies, but common sense tells me it can’t be good.

We have come a long way in restoring our planet, but we have much more to do. Attend an Earth Day event this year, take your children or grandchildren, they are the next guardians of our little blue dot.

See more of Bob’s Cleveland Comhrá columns HERE

Bob Carney

Bob Carney

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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