Into the Wild: Progress is possible

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Climate change feels like an overwhelming and intractable crisis. Dire predictions are not only coming true but are falling short of the realities of warming. Scientists pound the table year after year with more and more urgent calls for immediate action and the world just shrugs.

It’s hard to remain optimistic. But, it’s worth trying.

Nick LundScientists have banged their fists before. Things have been bleak before, in other contexts and for other issues, and the world has seemed to shrug. And yet, at least for some of those issues and in some of those contexts, we’ve responded. It’s truly worth remembering that we can solve the environmental crisis we create when we recognize our bad behavior and put a stop to it. We’ve done it, and we can do it again.

American bald eagles, the national symbol of our country, were nearly extinct in the 1960s. Bioaccumulation of the insecticide DDT affected their bodies in cruel ways, such as making their eggs’ shells too brittle to withstand the weight of incubation. There were fewer than 50 individual birds in the entire state.

Then, we changed. We banned the use of DDT and the birds returned. Today it’s estimated that more than 1,400 bald eagles live in Maine, alongside restored populations of osprey, peregrine falcons, and other species.

In the early 1970s, just 50 years ago, the Androscoggin River was one of the most polluted rivers in America. Untreated waste from mills and slaughterhouses along the river made the water unfit for fish and humans alike. The situation so disturbed U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine that he championed the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Untreated effluent flows into the Androscoggin River in 1973.
Untreated effluent flows into the Androscoggin River in 1973. (Courtesy National Archives/Charles Steinbacker)

Now, pollution is being controlled and sewage is being treated; less than 5 percent of the discharges remain. Fish have returned, and the water is cleaner than any time in more than a century.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the worldwide environmental crisis worrying the public wasn’t climate change but the ozone layer. The atmospheric veil protecting the Earth from harmful ultraviolet light was thinning dangerously due to humanity’s increasing release of chemicals, including CFCs. Holes in the layer were imminent, we learned.

Then, we took action. The worldwide use of CFCs is being curbed, and although it’s not happening quickly, the depletion has slowed significantly. Scientists expect the ozone layer to return to 1980s levels in a few decades and the healing trend to continue into the future.

Smog and other kinds of air pollution were a serious health concern for many mid-century Americans. Our cities were filled with industrial soot, causing cancers, lung diseases, kidney diseases, and other ailments. The problem was identified and regulated, and the combined emissions of the six most common air pollutants dropped 78 percent from 1970-2020. Today the United States has some of the cleanest air of any similarly sized industrial nation.

We can solve the problems we’ve created. It’s not fast and it’s not easy but it is possible. The realities of climate change are dire, but we can benefit from remembering that we’ve won environmental battles in the past and can win them again in the future.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.