Sometimes All I Need Is The Air That I Breathe

pollution (1)

by Steve Buschbacher

In 1965, the noted comedian and songwriter, Tom Lehrer, put out a live album called That Was The Year That Was. That record contained a song called “Pollution” that had these lyrics –

“If you visit American City, you will find it very pretty.

Just two things of which you must beware.

Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.”

The 1960s were, perhaps, the worst time for our country’s environment. Years of dumping toxic waste into our rivers, factories spewing smoke unabated into the air, and our nation’s love affair with the automobile, had finally caught up with us. Permanent clouds hung over cities in the Rust Belt. A new term, smog, was coined to describe what Pacific Ocean fog and the daily accumulation of auto exhaust was doing to southern California. For me, the single most memorable event occurred in Cleveland, in 1969, when a section of the Cuyahoga river actually caught on fire.

The result was that, on December 2, 1970, Richard Nixon’s administration created the Environmental Protection Agency.  The E.P.A.’s purpose was to protect human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.

The E.P.A. started regulating pesticides, creating fuel mileage standards which, as a result provided for automobiles that spewed fewer pollutants into our air, monitoring air quality in U.S. cities which also meant monitoring greenhouse gases, and watching the quality of our drinking water. There HAVE been improvements in some areas. Cleveland’s river has not caught fire since and, in fact, now has fish living in it again. You can stand at the top of the Mount Washington lift in Pittsburgh and see the entire city through fairly clean air. It’s now possible to have days in southern California that do not always start out cloudy from smog. I’ve been there to witness it first-hand.

The E.P.A. is not a non-stop success story. As with any government agency, there have been problems. Auto makers were allowed to get away with loopholes in fuel economy standards that kept regulations from being enforced. The agency allowed a rule which exempted coal-fired power plants from being required to use maximum available control technology. And then, in December of 2007, came their report on greenhouse gasses, climate change, and global warming.

Global warming has become a lightning rod for both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will tell you that it is a scientific fact that the planet is warming. They point to scientific data that shows polar ice fields getting smaller every year and to mean temperatures getting higher and higher. Conservatives tell you it’s just a trend and that cooling will begin any year now. They point to collections of temperature data that goes back perhaps one hundred years to prove their point although it seems like a lot of the data was collected before the environment got so bad that a Republican president (Nixon, no less!) was forced to bring the E.P.A. to life.


Enter the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. All through his campaign, he repeated the mantra that the Republicans wanted to hear …. that global warming is not real. The faithful would cheer and shake their fists and he could retreat into the cocoon of ignorance that has housed him since he announced his candidacy. He would proudly announce how cold a particular day was and then rhetorically ask about global warming to get a cheer from his faithful. All of them unclear on the fact that global warming is not about the absence of cold days but about a gradual warming of the entire planet and not just the fact that one still needs to wear gloves in Philadelphia in January.

After the election, when the list of people for cabinet positions was being assembled, up popped the name of the attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt. The same Scott Pruitt who had filed a lawsuit against the E.P.A. over the issue of climate change. Of course, he was just the person that was needed to head up the E.P.A. and safeguard our environment so he was tapped to head up the agency. That makes about as much sense as, say, nominating someone with an overt hatred of public schools as Secretary of Education but that’s another piece to be written.

In addition to the E.P.A. here in the United States, we have a global environmental organization looking out for our interests, Greenpeace. Born out of a protest against the U.S. government’s plan to detonate a nuclear weapon underneath the tectonically unstable Alaskan island of Amchitka in 1969 (and you thought the current administration had a monopoly on stupid ideas … HA!), Greenpeace has grown to be a force in worldwide environmental activism.

Greenpeace has endured its share of criticism. Playing politics too much … too soft on some issues … too hard on others. They will never make everyone happy. The fact remains, however, that they are the leading organization watching our environment right now especially with our own E.P.A. being crippled by a president who just wants it to go away quietly.

Greenpeace has refused to accept any checks drawn on corporate accounts. They state that they rely solely on private donations and no one has yet to prove otherwise. Go on and mention Greenpeace to a conservative and watch them roll their eyes. It’s really fun and worth the effort.

So, what can we do? U.S. citizens, age 18 and over, have the right to vote.  We have a mid-term election coming up. It would be great to see voter turnout in excess of 50%. It would be great to start to restore sanity to the Houses of Congress. Elect Representatives and Senators who care more about people and the air we breath and the water we drink than about cashing that big check from the campaign donor who cares only about themselves and their bottom line.

Until then ….      “Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air”

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