Not In Whose Back Yard?

June 9, 1996 - The New York Times offered a lengthy report on June 6th on the state of the Hudson River: "Shaking Off Mankind's Taint, The Hudson Pulses With Life." Although some troubling problems remain, the river's current bill of health is a dramatic success story. As recently as the 70s, unregulated dumping of sewage and industrial waste had rendered large parts of the Hudson biologically dead. Deadly PCBs, mostly from a General Electric factory far upriver - some 40 miles north of Albany - settled into the river bottom and found their way into the food chain. Some PCBs remain, rendering Hudson River seafood lightly toxic (bottom-feeders such as catfish should be shunned; striped bass and others are OK to eat twice a week, except for pregnant women, according to the NYC Dept. of Health). But in terms of the balance of life, and the revival of indigenous species, the river has made great strides.

One factor that has helped the Hudson regain its vitality has been the widespread reforestation along its banks. That, plus the controls on waste dumping mandated in the Clean Water Act of 1972, have given the river a second chance. Indeed, the Hudson's ecological resurgence is only one in a heartening series of environmental success stories in the US - particularly in the northeast.

As the US economy moved beyond its dependence on wood for fuel and building materials, and farming became less prevalent in the Northeast, huge forests were allowed to regrow. Species thought to have been eliminated in the region, such as the black bear, moose, bobcat, gray wolf and bald eagle, are making strong comebacks into far more of their former ranges than anyone predicted they would. With organized and well-connected local environmental groups to protect it and lobby for it, nature has shown great resilience.

But we should not overcongratulate ourselves. It is evident that social and economic conditions in the northeastern United States are very favorable for environmental renewal. Here, we concern ourselves with the subtleties of toxins in the food chain. But for half of the world's people, the most pressing environmental issue is the level of raw sewage in their drinking water. In today's global economy, ecological health has become a luxury - as for a suburban homeowner who carefully tends backyard wildflowers while acres of surrounding fields are paved over.

The spirit of "NIMBY" (Not In My Back Yard) has been successful in restoring the woodlands and rivers of the Eastern US. In the United States, the "owners" of back yards are numerous enough and comfortable enough to be willing to work to preserve their rivers and forests. Solving the world's environmental problems, then, should be easy. All we have to do is to raise the average global standard of living to that which prevails in the northeastern US.

Is that possible? Well, considering the profligate resource and energy use that prevails in the United States, perhaps not. But prosperity is not necessarily synonymous with wastefulness. In any case, we ought to stop kidding ourselves: a prosperous community can buy itself some measure of ecological rejuvenation - but to reverse the frightening trends in our global ecology today, we must implement a just economic order that is capable of eliminating poverty.

Lindy Davies - June 9, 1996