My name is David Guion. What qualifies me to make that claim? For one thing, I’m a lifelong academic, a librarian by profession. (Don’t worry, It doesn’t mean I’m stuffy. It means I majored in looking it up and knowing reliable information sources when I see them.)
And why do I write about sustainability?
Remembering Earth Day
I grew up in a college town in Ohio. I was a college student there on the first Earth Day, in 1970. Students all over the country were concerned about air and water pollution.
So was I. I read about it. What’s more, I could see it and smell it.
Thanks to a coal-fired energy plant on campus, soot and ashes landed everywhere. Also, the stench from a ketchup plant and an open ditch near the wastewater treatment plant wafted all over town.
Wastewater treatment plants didn’t deal with what amounted to fertilizers in laundry detergents and other cleaning products. As a result, algae choked the streams where they discharged the outflow and killed all the fish. You could see the suds and smell the dead fish.
Also, much of Lake Erie was dead, because the water in those parts had no dissolved oxygen. Neither plant nor fish could survive. The dead patch grew and grew.
Can you imagine how exciting Earth Day was? It meant people all over the country cared about these problems. It meant that something would happen. Some years later, I remember reading that the death of Lake Erie had been reversed!
Problem: we early environmentalists put all our faith in the brand new Environmental Protection Agency and other government actions.
Later in the 1970s, I was in graduate school in Iowa. I participated in a petition drive to get the state legislature to pass a bottle bill. That seemed a great way to cut down on roadside litter, which itself is a kind of pollution. And it passed.
But there is a rub and it’s really ironic.
The most immediately obvious result of the bottle bill was that vending machines no longer offered drinks in glass bottles. That’s because no one who owned them wanted to collect the deposits. So they all switched to aluminum cans.
Why was that a problem?
The bottling companies all washed and refilled empty glass bottles. When we bought them at the grocery store, we had to pay a deposit. After all, we got it back when we returned the empties. When we got something from a vending machine, we drank it and then returned it to a nearby bottle tray.
The litterbugs who threw glass bottles out their car windows were throwing out money. Other people had incentive to pick up the bottles and redeem them for cash.
When all the vending machines switched to aluminum cans, nobody collected and recycled the cans!!! Municipal recycling programs didn’t exist yet. When the first ones started, they were all drop-off programs. Hardly anyone participated.
Meanwhile, the litterbugs kept littering. They just tossed cans that no one had any incentive to pick up!
My political activism had not resulted in a solution to the litter problem. It merely contributed to making it worse. A law cannot force people to take personal responsibility. The bottle bill didn’t even give people an opportunity to exercise personal responsibility!
And the result? I slowly became soured on the kind of “environmentalism” that relies primarily on getting the government to pass laws and regulations.
From environmentalism to sustainability
But it doesn’t stop there. Much more recently, I served for three years on a university sustainability committee. That experience began to broaden my understanding of the many different aspects of being good to the environment. Above all, it introduced me to a whole new concept: sustainability.
- Sustainable practices are the ones humans can repeat indefinitely. Without either damaging the environment or running out of resources.
- Sustainability does not pit concern for the environment against human economic activity.
- Sustainability does not require new laws and regulations to make it work, as important as they can be.
- Sustainability is not imposed from the top down.
- Sustainability empowers us all.
I love to pass on what I learn. Explore with me.