River on Fire: The Cuyahoga and Environmental Reform

Summer of ’69

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire.

The river caught fire.

It wasn’t the first time, but it was (hopefully?) the last.

You see, for decades—or perhaps a century, even, going back to the Industrial Revolution—we’d had a tendency to treat out rivers like sewers. There is a logic to this that is both common-sensical and absurd at the same time.

What are we going to do with the waste? Throw it in the river! The water will wash it away! It’s like flushing something down the toilet (which you should also be careful about). We just presume things are gone as we flush them away. And this is the common sense level, where one might, for instance, think that a good way to dispose of a vat of grease is to pour it in the river. Just extrapolate that out to industrial waste and oil.

Except it has to go somewhere, or nowhere, as America’s rivers became toxic. The Cuyahoga River had caught fire at least a dozen times before 1969, and it wasn’t alone. One would hope that 50 years later the very idea of a flowing body of water bursting into flames would make the mind boggle, but at the time it was meaningfully viewed as business as usual, or even a sign of the robust industrial economy of Cleveland.

Everyone knew the river was polluted, sure, but no one really seemed to care that much. The fire chief didn’t seem to think the 1969 event was a very big deal when it happened, and the press didn’t even show up. And it’s important to note the extent to which that kind of sentiment remains alive in 2019. Maybe everyone would agree that it’s not OK to pollute a river to the point where it catches fire, but any number of people to continue to deny the existence of global warming, for example.

What lies behind that is arguably a faith that Nature will work itself out. Whether God is explicitly invoked in such a story is irrelevant. People believe that Nature is somehow homeostatic, and that no matter what we do everything will ultimately be OK.

When Time magazine ran a story in the aftermath of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, however, this became an emblem of environmental worries. Nevermind that the striking images they used were from a previous blaze in 1952 (as no photos of the 1969 event are known to exist), it was finally the case that the very idea of a river catching fire struck the American populace as abhorrent, and absurd—as it always should have.

It became a symbol, meaningfully leading to things like the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the EPA by none other than Richard Nixon. Today’s GOP is so far to the right of Nixon, it’s really disturbing.

By the 1990s, when I moved to Cuyahoga Falls (which the river runs through, as you might guess), things were significantly better. Of course, the worst sites were up around Cleveland, and I suppose I don’t know for sure about them in a personal way. But it seems that we decided, after that fire in 1969, that polluting the river really wasn’t OK—and not just the Cuyahoga, though that became the symbol for a broader movement.

It seems like certain events, like this one and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, for example, manage to capture the imagination, and inspire people to try and change the world. But it also seems like we never go quite far enough, and by the 90s the symbol that had once inspired people to take action had settled into a kind of melancholia about the world.

Perhaps that tracks a general movement, from the optimism of the late 60s (borne as it was out of a time that could well have led to great despair) to the detached angst of the 90s, to wherever we are now.

I sometimes think Trump idolizes Nixon—what with his “Silent Majority” campaign posters and talk about “law and order”—but rather than start the EPA, he has withdrawn from the Paris Accord, and it sometimes feels like he wants us to go back to that time when we were polluting the rivers. Because, fuck it—the economy!

I don’t know if we need another burning river, or what might constitute such a symbol in 2019. Perhaps we have become too jaded for anything to inspire such a response. We flush all kinds of shit down the toilet and think it’s gone, but the fact is it goes somewhere. Wet wipes and bacon grease become problematic “fatbergs.”

And climate scientists tells us we’re past the tipping point, with the worst projections having us become like Venus.

It doesn’t seem we’ve learned the lessons of the Cuyahoga River.

But at least there is beer.

The river burns on the label for Great Lakes Burning River pale ale

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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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