Sometimes the drumbeat of bad news about the environment becomes so numbing that you just feel like plugging your ears and whistling. So my day brightened when I read a recent story in the New York Times about the rebirth of that archetypal cesspool of the modern urban hydrosphere, the Charles River, immortalized in the 1965 song by the Standells (and anthem of Red Sox fans):
“Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, fuggers, and thieves
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home!”
The Charles was closed to swimming in 1955, “after a couple of centuries of being a de facto sewage dump and a cesspool for slaughterhouses, mills and other factories”. Even today it’s no Club Med beach, but it no longer catches on fire, and the powers that be have decided that the river is sufficiently healed that those crazy enough to dive into it are no longer on the wrong side of the law.
The situation reminds me of growing up outside of Washington, DC. As a kid we would go into the city from time to time, crossing the appalling Potomac River which at that time was so choked with flourescent green algae from phosphate detergent dumping that the floating mat could hold a quart-sized malt liquor bottle, along with a host of other unsavory detritus. But those days, happily, are gone. Now people catch shad in the Potomac — and even eat ’em.
But my favorite examples along these lines (and the following quotes) come from J.R. McNeill’s remarkable book, “Something New Under the Sun. An Environmental History of the 20th Century World.” Take the Pittsburgh area, for example, a major industrial city formerly fueled by coal, also known as the enemy of the human race (on that last point, see also here and here). A visitor in 1866 decribed the place as “Hell with the lid taken off.” The worst air pollution disaster in American history occurred:
“. . . in Donora, 30 km from Pittsburgh, where cars sometimes stalled for lack of oxygen. In October 1948, weather conditions trapped foul air from steel mills and zinc smelters, killing 20 people and making sick 6000 (out of 13,000 in the town).” [italics added]
The macabre scene at right is a street in Donora during that period at high noon. No I am not making this up. Yet, at the end of the war, Pittsburgh began converting to cleaner coal, oil, diesel, and electrical power, and five short years later in 1953, “Pittsburgh’s air was cleaner than at any time since the civil war . . . In 1985, a weekly magazine rated Pittsburgh as America’s most livable city.” It rose from the ashes — literally.
The moral of the story is that Nature has remarkable powers of healing, if we just give her a chance. There really is hope for a greener future — and we need all the hope we can get.