In several of these entries, we have talked about how unhealthy, unsafe, and unpleasant life was in cities until the late 1800s, when local governments began building drinking water systems, constructing massive sewer systems and sanitation departments, establishing public health departments, and reducing the threat of urban fires. But one of the most unpleasant and unhealthy parts of urban life wasn’t addressed until decades later: air and water pollution.
It wasn’t because people couldn’t see the problems. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher, visited Pittsburgh on a speaking tour in 1882 and was horrified by the dark, soot-covered city he found. “Six months’ stay here would justify suicide,” he told his host, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
It was no better in and near the rivers, lakes, and bays that gave rise to these cities. Yes, local governments had built sewer systems to take human and industrial wastes from factories and neighborhoods, but these systems usually dumped the effluent into nearby streams. This caused predictable conflicts between drinking water drawn from those streams and the wastes cities dumped into them.
In Chicago, the body of water that received the wastes was the Chicago River, which emptied into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan was also where the city got its drinking water. After a few scares, Chicago solved the problem with one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of all time: It reversed the course of the river, forcing it to flow inland—that is, away from Lake Michigan and toward the Mississippi River. (As often happens, this great feat had major unintended consequences that the region struggles with to this day.)
Other cities merely turned their backs on their waterfronts. After all, who would want to live near a river as foul as the Missouri River south of Omaha, where meatpackers dumped their refuse? And it wasn’t just rivers. Fouled by wastes from cities and farms along its banks, Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes, had such frequent fish kills and municipal swimming bans that, by the mid-1960s, national publications declared Lake Erie “dead.”
So why did people put up with such intolerable conditions? For three reasons. First, pollution was seen as a local problem, not a national problem. And that more or less threw the problem back on states or cities, which had little expertise in pollution control.
Second, even if cities and states had answers, businesses were opposed to anything requiring reduced emissions. Citizens, too, were divided about it. In Pittsburgh, if smoke was belching from the steel mills, residents figured it meant more money in the local economy. Local officials worried that if they added costs for businesses, companies would move to states that didn’t care so much about clear air or water.
Finally, taking on such a massive problem as pollution did not have the urgency that the civil rights movement had earned by the mid-1960s. As we noted in the entry on civil rights and voting rights, the task of a successful reform effort is to move citizens and leaders from “should” to “must.” To do this, they require relentless organizing and a galvanizing event or two. And that’s exactly what happened with the environmental movement.
The galvanizing events came in 1969. One was in January when a blowout on an oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, California caused a 35-mile-long oil slick that fouled beaches and killed thousands of seabirds, fish, and ocean mammals trapped in the sticky sludge. (It was the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters in 1969; two spills since have been greater.)
The other was on June 22, when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Yes, you read that right. The river was so polluted by industrial wastes that a spark from a passing train caused the river to catch on fire; the Cleveland Fire Department was called to put it out. Actually, this wasn’t the only time the Cuyahoga had caught fire; this one wasn’t even a particularly large blaze. But like the Santa Barbara spill, it came as public awareness of the dangers of pollution was growing. Both events attracted enormous television, newspaper, and magazine coverage and convinced many that the time was right for a national effort to put an end to such things.
Then there was the environmental movement itself, which sprang to life in a huge way on April 22, 1970, in a series of events called Earth Day. In cities and on college campuses across the country, 20 million people showed up to learn about the perils the environment faced and what could be done to change things. Earth Day 1970 was, as one observer put it, “the big bang of U.S. environmental politics.”
As with civil rights in 1964 and voting rights in 1965, the federal government’s response was surprisingly swift and sweeping. In 1970 Congress passed a major revision of the Clean Air Act. Two years later, it passed the Clean Water Act. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon proposed and Congress approved the creation of a single agency to direct the federal government’s efforts to restore the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency.
Armed with these two powerful laws, the EPA took on three major responsibilities. First was research on the causes of environmental degradation and ways of curbing it. Second was a comprehensive system for measuring pollution. Third was the power to ban pollutants causing extensive damage.
In other areas, EPA worked in collaboration with state and local governments, such as in monitoring pollution in an urban region and along streams and lakes, issuing permits for companies and cities that discharged wastes into streams, and assisting local governments in drastically improving their sanitary sewer systems.
If you read our entry on disaster relief, this will seem familiar. Where scale, expertise, and urgency were important, the federal government held sway. Where proximity to the problem was important, it created collaborations with states and localities—collaborations encouraged by federal funding. (Local governments received billions of dollars in federal grants and loans for upgrading their sewer systems and drinking-water infrastructure.)
Along the way, environmental efforts were aided by another strength of government: steadfastness. For half a century, through Democratic and Republican administrations and endless changes in Congress and state legislatures, the EPA and its counterparts in state and local government have remained focused on identifying and reducing environmental hazards.
So what have been the results? Some of the most dangerous pollutants ever produced were banned, substances like DDT, PCBs and lead in paint and gasoline. The EPA took decisive action against chlorofluorocarbons, which were once part of everything from hairspray to air conditioners but contributed to the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. It mandated that automakers install catalytic converters in cars and trucks as a way of limiting emissions.
Using a carrot-and-stick approach, the EPA forced cities not only to clean up the wastewater they dumped into streams but deal also with stormwater pollution. If you have seen bus and carpool lanes on urban highways and greater investments in public transit, those are the result of federal air quality efforts. If there are restrictions in your community over construction close to streams, they are one result of clean water efforts.
From 1980 to 2015, total emissions of the six major air pollutants targeted by the EPA declined by 63 percent—even as economic growth surged, population grew, and vehicle miles driven increased. In the first 20 years of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the EPA estimates, more than 20,000 premature deaths were prevented by reducing harmful pollutants in the air and lead in the air and in homes.
The clean water results have been equally as impressive. Remember the Cuyahoga, the river that caught on fire in 1969? It has not caught fire since and is home now to 40 species of fish. One of the hippest parts of Cleveland today is The Flats, formed at a bend in the Cuyahoga near downtown. Once a grim district of steel mills, warehouses, and the noxious Cuyahoga, it is home to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, a beautiful urban park a riverwalk, apartments, offices, restaurants, and bars. In 2019 the American Rivers conservation association named the Cuyahoga its “River of the Year” in honor of “50 years of environmental resurgence.”
And remember the Chicago River, so polluted by human and industrial wastes that the city reversed its course? The environmental efforts of a half-century have created a river so appealing, you should see it for yourself. And you can, if you stroll along its beautiful riverwalk or hop aboard one of its many sightseeing boat tours. Along both banks of the Chicago River, there are new offices, housing, performance spaces, and restaurants. In 1970, these things would have been unimaginable.
And it’s not just in Cleveland and Chicago. Cities around the country, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, Baltimore to Oakland, California, have reclaimed once-polluted waterfronts, turning them into entertainment districts and thriving urban neighborhoods.
Are water and air quality where they should be? Absolutely not. Are we winning the effort to halt climate change? Again, no. Much more must be done. But is our air less polluted and our water cleaner than it was a half-century ago? By almost every measure, yes, they are. As William Ruckelshaus, the first director of the EPA, said in 2010, “Even if all of our waters are not swimmable or fishable, at least they are not flammable.”
And for this we can thank government.
Footnote: In several entries, we’ve talked about how governments often support activities that have “positive externalities,” which are benefits produced indirectly by the service. Examples are public transit, farmers markets, and sidewalks and trails. Pollution is the classic example of a “negative externality.” Industries and individuals usually don’t intend to pollute; it’s a byproduct of their business or activity.
Governments’ responses to negative externalities generally fall into two camps. First is to lessen the bad consequence by, say, requiring a business to install anti-pollution devices or forcing the company to clean up a polluted tract of land. Second is to find a way of offsetting the negative externality. So a government might use highway and bridge tolls paid by motorists to subsidize public transit. In either case, the government’s approach is the opposite of what it is with activities that have positive externalities, which is to support and sometimes subsidize them. When governments recognize a negative externality, they try to raise the price of the activity causing the harm.
Give the credit to: federal government 90%, state governments 10%
Image supplied by DonkeyHotey licensed under Creative Commons.