Minnesota is quietly passing through the 50th anniversary of a pollution disaster. In the winter of 1962-63, more than three million gallons of soybean oil spilled in Mankato, flowing down the Minnesota River to meet more than one million gallons of industrial oil spilled in Savage, killing an estimated 10,000 ducks near Red Wing and Hastings. Coming in a decade when American rivers were catching on fire and people donned gas masks to protest choking urban air pollution, Minnesota’s calamity promoted public outrage and led to the creation of the Pollution Control Agency.
We tend to focus on what ails our environment, and there’s plenty of that, but what happened in the 1960s has fostered lasting benefits to Minnesotans and other Americans. Air pollutants targeted by the 1970 Clean Air Act are down 90% or more in some cases. Cities don’t trash and burn their garbage in open dumps. Wolves, loons and eagles are back. While we still must tolerate an unacceptable number of impaired lakes and streams, many of our waters are visibly cleaner and healthier than a half century ago.
None of this happened on its own. People clamored for it. They pressured public officials to pass tough laws. And we all changed. We began to regard the environment not as a waste receptacle but a community to which we belong. That’s a history of hope. Environmental change for the better is possible.
Let’s not be sour in the face of daunting challenges like climate change. They are formidable problems, but in the 1960s some viewed the pollution woes of the time as incurable and predicted a pollution dystopia for America by the year 2000. Just the opposite occurred.
One of my favorite quotes is from John F. Kennedy: “Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man.” He added, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
Humankind authored today’s environmental problems; humankind can solve them. It’s time to draft the next chapter in the history of hope.