When people accept the degradation of our environment across generations as the new normal, this is “Environmental Generational Amnesia.” I spoke of this in my first blog post in October. Since my first post, a new administration has taken residence in the White House. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Environmental Generational Amnesia and the new normal.
A week ago I observed a high school teacher working with his students to map out a groundwater contamination plume. This lesson was part of a unit that teaches students hydrologic principles, mapping, and modeling. It is based on a real-world EPA Superfund site in the neighborhoods where these students grew up. The students were not engaged in the lesson at all, and most of the teacher’s efforts were spent on classroom management.
There was one student answering the teacher’s questions during the lesson. He shared with me a previous assignment he completed that covered the history of the groundwater contamination. I was amazed that the student’s work showed a complete apathy towards the entire issue. He took it for granted that industries, from the 1940’s to early 1970’s, were allowed to dispose of toxic chemicals in unlined treatment ponds. He was also not concerned that many families in his community suffered health consequences once the contamination reached the groundwater that was delivered to their taps. Today, Tucson Water spends a significant amount of money to operate a multi-million-dollar facility that removes all of the contaminants before it reaches any customer.
This scenario represents a different version of Environmental Generational Amnesia. People today forget what life was like before the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I can trace back my roots to when I became an environmentalist, and it was the year that the EPA was founded. In 1970, I was a 5th grade student in Sister Maureen’s class at St. Joseph’s School in Tucson, AZ. Our class won a nationwide contest sponsored by Scholastic to raise environmental awareness. We wrote letters to officials, and I remember changing the words in Simon and Garfunkel’s hit, “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” to “A Bridge Over Polluted Waters.” Yes, it was before copyright infringement regulations and Weird Al Yankovic, but we were devastated at the time by images of rivers on fire, along with dead fish and birds on shorelines. What we were seeing at the time was not something we wanted to accept as normal, and we wanted to see change.
As people become weary, they become more willing to accept environmental degradation as “normal.” Temperature anomalies, drought, and extreme storms are becoming normal to us. But I’m reminded in daily emails from a variety of environmental organizations that the actions our new federal administration are taking are not normal. I am heartened by the spirit of Americans all over the country who are fighting against things that are not right. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a recent YouTube video, reminds us that pollution affects people every day. A lack of clean air and water affects everyone. Apathy and ignorance can lead us again into situations that create Superfund cleanup sites. It also prevents us from moving forward with combating the devastating effects of global climate change.
I listen to my 5th grade self every day, and continue to voice my concerns to my elected officials. Instead of writing new verses to songs, as I did in 5th grade, I am working towards educating others about the environmental issues affecting us all. My audience includes teachers, students, friends, and family. I encourage others to do the same. The first Earth Day occurred in 1970, as I was becoming the environmentalist I am today. On Earth Day this year, I will be participating in our local March for Science, and Sister Maureen will be in my heart.