In any major, long-term effort or project inertia will eventually set in. At that point we need provocateurs – people who challenge the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom. In the case of the Buffalo River, a jeweler named Stanley Spisiak played a critical role as a “watch dog,” changed public sentiment, and eventually was credited with stopping indiscriminant industrial pollution of the Buffalo River. Later, the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper continued to effectively fill that role. In the case of the Cuyahoga River, David Blaushild, an automobile dealer, raised awareness of water pollution and became an activist for river cleanup. In the case of the Rouge River, a county drain commissioner named Jim Murray challenged the 48 watershed communities to protect their watershed home. In 1880, a Citizens’ Association was formed to investigate remedies to cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks, and to educate residents. Their advocacy helped create a regional governmental entity called the Sanitary District of Chicago in 1889 to address the water supply and wastewater problems. Today, the Friends of the Chicago River regularly challenge established practices and advocate for river stewardship.
Many people have asked me “What is the major accomplishment of the public outcry over environmental pollution in the 1960s?” That is easy – it was the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and Earth Day. These same people have asked “What is the major accomplishment in more recent years?” I believe it is the expansion and proliferation of nongovernmental organizations established to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. The environmental movement developed a generation of people concerned about the environment. As more awareness was raised about pollution, more people got involved and many new environmental and conservation organizations were established. As more people and environmental and conservation organizations were created, more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation was generated. As more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation has been generated, a better knowledge base has been developed for better management. This improved knowledge base leads to a better informed constituency and the cycle continues. As we all know, an educated and informed constituency can change public sentiment.
If you believe, as I, that sustainable development is the next major challenge then we also need sustainability entrepreneurs that engage people meaningfully at all levels in achieving sustainability. That is why it is so heartening to see sustainability organizations like EcoCity Cleveland, Sustainable Cleveland, Chicago’s Greening Network, the Western New York Sustainable Energy Association Trust, and Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum building the institutional capacity for meeting the sustainability challenge at the local level. Clearly, an important lesson is that we need provocateurs, incrementalists, and sustainability entrepreneurs to avoid the next “tipping point.”
What do you think is needed to avoid the next “tipping point?”
Photo above: Provocateur Stanley Spisiak (4 th from left), President and Mrs. Johnson (center), Governor Nelson Rockefeller (2 nd from right), and others discuss the “bucket of slop” from the Buffalo River, 1966 (photo credit: Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society).