I don’t understand the crowd that thinks the Environmental Protection Agency ought to be dismantled. I remember a childhood in which people took whatever they didn’t want and just tossed it into creeks and rivers: old tires, wrecked cars, dead appliances, box springs, garbage… even chemicals. Every few months there would be a fish kill on about a quarter of mile of the stream that flowed through my Pennsylvania town—courtesy of discharge from a creek-side dry cleaning plant.
As I got older I recall flying into cities that weren’t visible until the plane pierced the yellow smog that hovered above. You didn’t need to be an M.D. to figure out that it probably wasn’t healthy to breathe that air. I also remember taking parts of Pittsburgh home with me—in the form of grime and soot that clung to my clothing and exposed skin. Or driving through places like Latrobe and Butler as fast as I could because the stench of paper mills watered my eyes and constricted my throat. These memories make me testy when I hear business-at-any-cost advocates talk about emasculating the EPA. Don’t get me started on idiots like Mitch “Burn as Much Coal as Possible” McConnell.
Pre-Earth Day American imagery came flooding back last week when I took a train from western Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Amtrak isn’t known for its scenic journeys, especially not in the Northeastern megalopolis. You get a great view of postindustrial America as you whiz (or crawl) through Holyoke, Springfield, New Haven, Bridgeport, Yonkers, Newark, and Trenton. It also seems as if trackside is the new dumping ground for the detritus of the American Dream gone wrong. Flat out ugly would be another way of expressing it.
Those old enough will recall the difference Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act made to American highways and byways. It made me wonder what a modern version of it would look like. We pat ourselves on the back when we recycle cans, glass, and paper, but the data is pretty clear that these things make just a dent in improving the environment. I’ll take and support that dent, but there’s so much more that could be done to make America a more pleasant and ecologically sound land. Why not start with the trackside?
What if we tried to convert squalor to dollars? (I like that phrase for a campaign!) When I look out the train window at abandoned factories, ghost parking lots, rusting heaps of metal, and cast off junk, I envision the following: real estate, recycling, repurposing, and reinvigorating local economies. First, local governments should seize these blighted and abandoned places by eminent domain and subdivide them into real estate parcels. Second, offer free land to any developer but with the stipulations that the site must be cleared and cleaned before anything else is done, and that all usable materials must be salvaged and either used on site or sold. Those old buildings are eyesores, but think of the number of reusable bricks, concrete blocks, sheets of tin, steel I-beams, cables, and pieces of wood contained therein. them.
In like fashion, imagine how much rubber could be chopped and reused from those old tires, how much asphalt could be crushed and made into new, how much glass could be re-fired, and how much metal could be re-smelted. Imagine, if you can, taking a train through a corridor of new developments, parks, or just good old Mother Nature reclaiming land where bric-a-brac and rubbish once collected. Imagine too the number of jobs that would result if we hired people to carefully recycle rather than sending in wrecking balls, bulldozers, or worse: waiting for he ravages of time to undo the ravages of humankind. Too expensive? Compared to what? What is our landscape worth? How much is it worth to put the American Dream on display rather than dying a slow death before our eyes? And while we’re at it, let’s give the EPA the power to make sure we don’t make these mistakes again.