EMPIRE, MI — Days before ice crowded back into Lake Michigan’s Platte Bay late last week, the shallow waters opened and fishermen planted their poles in the soft sand at the mouth of the Platte River and waited for steelhead and maybe a brown trout. Clean, cold water is abundant in our region in large part due to the safeguards contained in the 1972 Clean Water Act, arguably the most important environmental protection statute in history.
The law set limits on multiple pollutants from multiple sources. American courts enforced its provisions. Governments around the world enacted their own versions of the clean water law. And in the United States cleaner water gave rise to multi-billion dollar fisheries, new shoreline development in the nation’s cities, hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs in the recreational economy, and the untold satisfaction that the United States once was capable of responding effectively to a big national problem.
But when I wandered up to the parking area the pickups sported troubling evidence of how estranged we are, how politically disembodied we’ve become. The anti-EPA bumper stickers were apparent. “Defund the EPA.” “Regulate the EPA.” The men so intent on securing the fish that swam in the clean water of Lake Michigan also were engaged in a political abstraction. They very clearly voted for the right’s insurgent lawmakers, men and women in our state Legislature and national Congress not at all interested in advancing a tradition of environmental safeguards.
Disagreement about the scope and intensity of environmental regulations is a half-century old in the United States. What’s more — if you ask GOP voters what regulation they’d like to weaken — one that makes the air and water dirtier, opens the meadow next door to toxic waste dumping, allows the favorite wetland to be filled — they most often don’t have an answer. That’s because most Americans appreciate the cleaner and safer country we’ve produced with our environmental protections. I know a Republican family in Kentucky who took a trip to China, breathed the filthy air, smelled the putrid water, and returned home with this vow: “I’ll never complain about the EPA again.”
Environmental regulations and the EPA, though, are part of the nihilistic GOP message machine that asserts nothing really matters except shrinking the government, lowering taxes, ending regulation, opposing gun control and hating Obama. That’s a management menu, while provocative, that offers not a single cogent response to the economic and ecological storms that are battering us now. The Democrats are less dangerous, but also not nearly as articulate and determined.
Neither party is ready to describe the risks of what we face, and the many changes that are required to build a new era of safety and prosperity. Certainly, defending the nation’s existing environmental safeguards is a priority.
Just in the U.S. over the last decade we’ve crashed the economy, drowned two cities, produced a class of the permanently jobless, replaced the proven strategy of public investment leveraging private development with a hopeless era of austerity, turned suburban malls, theaters, and schools into killing zones, dried up Texas and California, killed hundreds with Great Plains and southern tornadoes, put the focus of our energy development sector on producing more carbon saturated fossil fuels through fracking and less on carbon-light renewables.
We are told by the chattering classes that voters are poised to make things worse by giving the GOP control of the U.S. Senate. The GOP’s wealthy supporters, like the rich legions that support the Democrats, have sufficiently distanced themselves from the nation’s problems that they’ve become untouchable. The rest of us need to find ways to reach each other. We are a lot more united than we think.
We like clean air and don’t want it to get dirty again. We appreciate laws that reduce risks in the work place and keep children from becoming laborers. We want good schools, decent work, and energy efficiency. We want some measure of hope that what we see unfolding in front of us will produce pragmatic leaders and a new era of national resolve to face up to our challenges and fix them. We like to fish. And we like the clean water they swim in.