Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More myths of the environmental movement:
According to the standard fable, post-war environmental conditions got inexorably worse until the nation's environmental consciousness awoke in the 1960s and demanded action. State and local governments were environmental laggards, according to this story, and only the federal government was capable of safeguarding ecological concerns. Events such as the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, memorialized in Time magazine with this picture, are pointed to as support for this traditional account. This fire, which helped spur passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, is constantly cited as evidence of how bad things were before the federal government got involved.

Yet the standard fable is just that, a fable - a fictionalized account with some truth, but fiction nonetheless. Let's start with the 1969 fire. There was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in June 1969, Time magazine did run a photo of a fire on the Cuyahoga, and the story of the fire did help spur passage of the CWA. But that's about where the truth ends. The fire was actually a minor event in Cleveland, largely because river fires on the Cuyahoga had once been common, as they had been on industrialized rivers throughout the United States, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But river fires were costly and posed serious risks to people and property, prompting local governments and private industry to act. The fire was not evidence of how bad things could get, but a reminder of how bad things had been.

Further, the June 1969 fire was far smaller and less significant than the fires of years past. Where there had been some major infernos on the Cuyahoga in years past, the 1969 fire was not among them. The fire burned for less than thirty minutes, and was out before the cameras arrived. (Here's the closest thing to a picture of that fire.) And that picture in Time magazine? It was not of the 1969 fire but of a fire from 1952. Apparently the editors of Time felt the need to dramatize their story of environmental ruin with a picture of a real fire, so they used the best picture they could find, even if it was not of the fire featured in their story. [For those interested, here is an extensive treatment of this history.]
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