Cuyahoga River Fire Nov. 3, 1952. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library.
In honor of Earth Day 2016 we share this excerpt from Senator Gaylord Nelson's 1967 article in The Progressive. It stands as both a tribute to progress made, and also a call for the fight ahead!
The natural environment of America—the woods and waters and wildlife, the clear air and blue sky, the fertile soil and the scenic landscape— is threatened with destruction.
Our growing population and expanding industries, the explosion of scientific knowledge, the vast increase in income levels, leisure time, and mobility—all of these powerful trends are exerting such pressure on our natural resources that many of them could be effectively ruined over the next ten or fifteen years.
Our overcrowded parks are becoming slums. Our birds and wildlife are being driven away or killed outright. Scenic rural areas are blighted by junkyards and billboards, and neon blight soils the outskirts of most cities. In our orgy of expansion, we are bulldozing away the natural landscape and building a cold new world of concrete and aluminum. Strip miners' shovels are tearing away whole mountains and spreading ugly wastes for miles around. America the affluent is well on the way to destroying America the beautiful.
Of all these developments, the most tragic and the most costly is the rapidly mounting pollution of our lakes and streams.
Every major river system in America is seriously polluted, from the Androscoggin in Maine to the Columbia in the far Northwest. The rivers once celebrated in poetry and song—the Monongahela, the Cumberland, the Ohio, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Rio Grande —have been blackened with sewage, chemicals, oil, and trash. They are sewers of filth and disease.
The Monongahela, which drains the mining and industrial areas of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, empties the equivalent of 200,000 tons of sulfuric acid each year into the Ohio River, which in turn is the water supply for millions of people who use and re-use Ohio River water many times over.
It is a definite possibliity that the Great Lakes—the greatest single source of fresh water in the world—could be effectively destroyed by pollution in the years ahead. If this were to happen, it would be the greatest natural resource disaster in modern history.
That is the outline of this new American tragedy. It must be attacked for what it is—a sinister byproduct of the prosperous, urbanized, industrialized world in which we live.
Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, was a senator from Wisconsin from 1962 to 1980.