Environment, politics and faith

July 27th, 2017

Picturing pollution

In a photograph of Birmingham, Alabama, taken in 1972, the tops of the tallest buildings peek out above a yellow-brown haze. The official caption of the photo, taken by LeRoy Woodson, reads, “The red-orange smoke characteristic of the steel plant blurs the city skyline.” Another of Woodson’s photos shows an African-American family standing on their front porch. The pollution is so heavy that the houses next door practically disappear from view.

The word for this phenomenon was smog, and I heard about it often when I was a child. The word was coined in 1905 to describe the new kind of pollution experienced by residents of London as a result of the Industrial Revolution. This type of pollution became a regular occurrence in the early 20th century and was often visible to the naked eye. It also had dire health consequences. In 1966, dozens of people in New York City died of respiratory illnesses over a single weekend due to smog. Michael Hansen, executive director of the Alabama environmental advocacy group Gasp, says of the smog in the 1970s, “A lot of that was particulate pollution, large particles that you could see from steel mills and factories.”

Visible pollution wasn’t limited to the air. In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River became so polluted that the river actually caught on fire. In places like Santa Barbara, sticky goo covered boats and shorelines as a result of oil spills.


As these situations became more common occurrences, pressure mounted to do something to get pollution under control. Between 1955 and 1970, Congress passed a number of air pollution acts. However, it wasn’t until the Clean Air Act of 1970 that the federal government was given the power to enforce air quality standards. This legislation had unanimous support and passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 0. Around the same time, the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in late 1970.

The first city targeted by the EPA was Birmingham. In 1971, the smog became so bad and the health risks so severe that the EPA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham petitioned federal district judge Sam Pointer to invoke the emergency powers section of the Clean Air Act. Twenty-three smokestack industries, including U.S. Steel, were forced to shut down until air quality improved.

Obviously, this infuriated the industries in question. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce complained, but George Hardy, the Jefferson County health officer, referred to lives lost in other cities: “If you are saying that we should be counting bodies before we do something, I disagree.”

Before partisanship

Christians have been on both sides of political fights about the environment. Many who believe the world will be destroyed in a coming end-times scenario dismiss environmental concerns as irrelevant. However, other Christians, both on traditionally liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, view care for the environment as vitally important. While their views of government intervention may vary, shared theology and self-interest can make allies of those on both sides of the aisle.

The politics of environmentalism have come a long way since the bipartisan Clean Air Act of 1970. Contemporary arguments about the role of government regulation fall along very partisan lines, with Republican lawmakers advocating for the free market and decreased regulation while Democrats push for increased protections against pollution and investment in clean energy. However, these partisan lines are quite new and don’t reflect the origins of the environmental movement in the United States. For instance, the EPA was signed into law by Richard Nixon, a Republican president who said, “The great question of the ’70s is . . . shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?”

Nixon appointed William Ruckelshaus, a Republican prosecutor from Indiana, to be the first director of the EPA. Ruckelshaus immediately began to target polluting industries in Cleveland, Atlanta and Detroit, among others. George Wallace, the controversial governor of Alabama, took out advertisements in Indiana newspapers that were targeted to pollution-heavy businesses in an attempt to woo industry to the state. According to Ruckelshaus, these ads essentially said, “Come on down to Alabama — we need jobs, we don’t care about the environment.”

Who is affected by pollution?

“You don’t see [the] fine particulate matter” in the air we breathe today, says Hansen. “2.5 microns. A fraction of the size of human hair, it’s not a plume of smoke. But it gets into your lungs, into your blood stream, . . . into your brain and [contributes] to dementia. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s good.” And although air quality is better now than it was in the 1970s, Hansen says, “Better is not a measure of quality. . . . The people who are most affected [by air pollution] are children, pregnant women, seniors, people with lung and heart disease and other chronic conditions.”

Research has shown that exposure to pollution also has a racial component. “In Birmingham, it has a link back to segregation. Where blacks were zoned to live, they were surrounded by [polluting] industry,” says Hansen. The indigenous protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline make a similar argument. Early designs for the pipeline went through Bismarck, far north of the reservation. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers thought it might pose a threat to the city’s water supply. The subsequent relocation of the pipeline to land owned by Native Americans therefore struck many protesters as racially motivated and hypocritical.

Environmental regulation today

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan rolled back many of the EPA’s regulations, claiming that they were too costly and didn’t provide enough benefit. Reagan also had the solar panels installed by President Jimmy Carter removed from the White House. Administration officials used rhetoric familiar to today’s debate over climate change, calling environmentalists paranoid and claiming that no serious problems existed. However, Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, campaigned as an environmentalist; and his son, George W. Bush, became the second president to install solar panels at the White House.

This back-and-forth over symbolic solar panels mirrors the back-and-forth approach political parties have taken regarding the environment. For example, when Reagan reduced the power of the EPA in the 1980s, it resulted in a loss of trust with the public. William Ruckelshaus, who became EPA director for a second time under Reagan, tells a story about a group of chemical company executives who came to him and asked him to strengthen the EPA. They claimed that a weak EPA made the public angry at both the government and the industry. This made the executives concerned that they would lose their business licenses in a public backlash.

People of faith can take a variety of positions on public issues of policy and regulation. Some may ask the question, “Does it harm more people than it helps?” Others may be more concerned about whether the policy in question balances our concern for stewardship of the earth with our stewardship of human resources and the economy. Some may argue for considering future generations or the practical implications of government regulations. Whatever position Christians take, stewardship of the land remains a core tenet of both the Bible and of United Methodism. No matter the future of government regulation, those who follow Jesus are called to treat the world as a gift from God.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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