An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal
An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal
An abandoned parking lot in the vicinity of Love Canal. Buffalutheran / CC0

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it is worth analyzing the evolution of environmental policies in the United States: where we were prior to the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s, what those movements gave us, and how our current environmental innovations are guided by free market enterprise. Is Greta Thunberg correct? Is capitalism the cause of climate change or will it be our salvation? And as we confront the growing existential threat of climate chaos, how will we hold those who have committed the crimes of the past accountable?

First, let’s break down the history of climate policy into three distinct phases. Prior to the 1970s, what I refer to as Phase I, there were almost no national or global environmental protections. Rivers were open sewers, and in some cases regularly ablaze — think the infamous Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Future Superfund sites unfolded across the nation, from the Times Beach in Missouri to Love Canal in Niagara Falls, not to mention the many bankrupted and abandoned mines on federal lands. Images of these polluted sites, and the subsequent protests, appeared nightly on television newscasts in households across America. As we learned in Rachel Carson’s 1962 treatise Silent Spring, one of the loudest calls to action that emerged from this era of largely unrestricted capitalism sprung from the endangerment of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, by DDT. Awareness increased of the possible connection between industrial chemicals and cancer rates. These factors jolted our nation to act, ushering in Phase II during the turbulent 1970s. …


Frank M. Dunnivant

Frank M. Dunnivant is a professor of chemistry at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and the author of Environmental Success Stories.

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