When I was very young, I remember my parents flinging refuse out the car window as we traveled the long roads to “vacation,” wherever that might be. This was the norm. I remember the change a few years later when the authorities posted signs informing us that littering was illegal and warning about fines. My parents immediately changed their habits, as did most other Americans.
The change most Americans have made during my lifetime regarding the environment has come in stages, but it is a large change. The average American in 2013 would have been considered “an environmental extremist” back in 1960. Most of us who have been around awhile have changed our attitude, probably without knowing it.
Back in 1960 (the first year I can remember), municipalities offered “garbage dumps,” where one could throw away just about anything, no matter how toxic. We were insulating homes with asbestos, and you could carve your initials in the trees. Even at the zoo, you could throw marshmallows or peanuts to the animals.
Factories were dumping untreated water with mercury and a host of toxic pollutants into our creeks and rivers. One of the Great Lakes was declared “dead.” Air pollution left houses near steel factories covered with dust rust; who knows how our lungs looked?
Cigarette smoking was omnipresent, and the rest of us dared not complain. We sprayed our gardens with DDT while the old-timers spoke of a time when one could see a variety of birds, not just sparrows, robins and pigeons. Nearly everyone cooked with margarine, and the pipes that carried in fresh water were made of lead.
The recent Kokomo Tribune article about the city taking hold of the former quarry on the east side of South Washington Street (just south of the Wildcat Creek) got me thinking. As a frequent patron of the former Southside Lumber Co., I often wondered why the adjacent property was fenced off. The Tribune article explained that Cabot Corp. had dumped toxic barrels and mildly radioactive machine parts on that site, as late as 1970.
It is hard to prove what the turning point was for many Americans back then, but I think it was a public service announcement commercial.
According to the Advertising Education Foundation: “In 1961, Keep America Beautiful partnered with the Ad Council to create a campaign dramatizing how litter and other forms of pollution were hurting the environment, and that every individual has the responsibility to help protect it.
“... On Earth Day, 1971, a PSA featuring Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody [crying because of the polluted streams] and the tag line, ‘People Start Pollution. People can stop it.’ aired for the first time ... The PSA won two Clio awards and … named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th Century by Ad Age Magazine.
“During the height of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful reported receiving more than 2,000 letters a month from people wanting to join their local team. By the end of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful local teams had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88% in 300 communities, 38 states, and several countries.”
America is now a cleaner country, and almost all of us have embraced some measure of environmental concern. We express it by recycling, picking up litter, seeking energy efficiency, or dropping off our spent fluorescent bulbs and no-longer-useful electronic equipment at the Howard County Recycling District. We need to appreciate that we have come a long way. And we are reaping the benefits with cleaner water, cleaner air and fewer toxic contaminants.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average life expectancy in America has risen from about 68 years in 1950 to about 78 years in 2008. The average American is living an extra decade for a variety of reasons, including fewer smokers, medical advances, better safety standards, and, I believe, because of a better environment. Younger generations may find it incredulous that practices like burying toxic barrels in the heart of town was a norm, but the rest us can look at the quarry and ponder how far we have come.
Ed Vasicek is pastor of Highland Park Church and a weekly contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.