No one was surprised, surprisingly. It’s burned before, people said. It’ll burn again.
Which was true. Since 1886, it happened thirteen times. In 1912, five people lost their lives. And the 1952 fire caused over a million dollars in damage.
from The Day the River Caught Fire
written by Barry Wittenstein
illustrated by Jessie Haartland
Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books
for Young Readers, 2023
According to my interpretation of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who kind of said we’ll need a little magic to make the world right, I disagree. We don’t. We need information. We need encouragement. And we need determination. That combination makes magic.
When William Shakespeare was born (April 23, 1564) the Thames River was so polluted that you could smell its stink for miles. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire and became the impetus for a movement. The 1969 fire was not the Cuyahoga’s first fire. It was not even the worst one. (See quote above)
After the 1969 fire was put out, people went back to work or home or school, but the times, they were a-changin’. A movement had begun. On April 22, 1970, under the leadership of Congressman Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes, his aide and an environmental activist, we celebrated the first Earth Day.
In December, 1970, the Cuyahoga River fire was highlighted in a cover story in National Geographic titled “Our Ecological Crisis.” Time Magazine published an article about the fire in March, 1970. Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency in January 1970, to strengthen the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The Clean Water Act has been amended several times since then. Through tighter restrictions, our water (and air) have become cleaner.
In 2019, fish caught in the Cuyahoga River were deemed “fit to eat,” but after rollbacks in the previous administration, on August 25, 2020, the river caught fire again. Storm drains allowed sewage, toxins, and fertilizer to flow into the river during heavy rains. The 2020 fire started when a fuel tanker spilled its flaming contents into the river after a traffic accident.
We need our governmental leaders to make and enforce laws to protect us and the environment.
And, we need our environmental scientists, our climatologists, and our geneticists. They ask questions they think they know answers to, just to discover if they actually could be wrong. After all, it’s really effective to learn from our mistakes. Scientists have shown us that we continue to make many, and many dangerous mistakes. They show us that we human beings have had a profound affect on our environment, especially in the days and years since the Industrial Revolution.
So why is it so hard to convince people of that profound affect?
Something called denial. The concept of denial is well-understood, well-documented, and much written about. We can be in denial about our own mortality or that of a loved one. We can be in denial about how the hot-fudge sundae we ate last night really affects our weight-control efforts. We can be in denial about a drinking or drug habit. According to psychological research, the enormity of the problem does not allow our brains to process its reality.
Now imagine that the earth will suffocate/drown/blow away or burn up if we don’t acknowledge climate change and start working diligently toward solutions.
The fact of climate change is easy to deny. It is just too big to wrap our heads around and millions of people are climate change deniers.
So what is the solution? Just like any huge problem or project, we must break it into smaller, more achievable goals. We need to tell our government officials that we are concerned about the problem. We need to make collective decisions that will benefit all of humanity and all of our shared earth. We all need to be involved on whatever level we can be.
Mother Nature is nothing if not fair. She responds harshly to abuse, but is abundantly forgiving when treated with love and generosity.
Let’s promise her we’ll be more cautious, more care-full, and more grateful for her gifts.
I just started reading Lessons in Chemistry (I’m only 14% in) by Bonnie Garmus. It’s historical fiction! (1960s) about “a gifted research chemist…who becomes the unlikely star of a beloved TV cooking show.” (Washington Post) and “the Catch-22 of early feminism.” (Steven King, via Twitter) I’ll give you my take next week.
Be curious! (and celebrate Mother Earth)