Fifty years ago this month, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. For decades the story of the fire boiled down to this: The water in this industrial river got ever more polluted until one day it burst into flames, shocking the nation and leading Congress to pass the Clean Water Act three years later
There’s some truth in the story. No doubt the burning Cuyahoga River helped galvanize public opinion about pollution and the need for the federal government to do more about it.
But the Cuyahoga River had burned many times before 1969; the earliest reference we found that the Cuyahoga had become flammable appeared in the minutes of a city council meeting when Cleveland’s leaders fretted that a recent fire on the river could have easily spread to lumberyards, refineries and other businesses along its banks. That was in 1868.
Other fires followed, some big enough to make the local newspapers in 1912, 1936, 1948 and 1952. And other rivers burned over the years as well, in Buffalo, Detroit and Houston, among other cities.
By 1969, the Cuyahoga, though still filthy, was the cleanest it had been in decades. And so the last fire on the Cuyahoga River became a touchstone for the environmental movement not because of changes to the river but because the nation’s collective values had changed. By 1969, most Americans found the idea of a burning river intolerable.
The environmental movement, born from the country’s affluence and fueled by a new generation that yearned for a different quality of life, had begun to change our collective thinking about the air, forests, oceans, lakes, streams and rivers. In 1969, a burning river wasn’t just a threat to private property, it was a symbol of how poorly we were treating our planet. Rivers had value for their own sake and shouldn’t catch fire.
The role our values play in environmental policy is often overlooked. When people talk about climate change or mass extinctions they often cite science or the need for more of it in staking out their positions. But it’s clear we haven’t gotten to the place where a majority of people find these problems intolerable, which is why we still dither about what to do about them, and why people can still push back and sow doubt.
The 1969 fire was relatively small, but as word spread around the country about the river, Time magazine used the event to kick off a new feature on the environment and wanted photos to go with it. Time asked one of Cleveland’s newspapers to send one of the fire.
Whether knowingly or by mistake, the newspaper sent a photo not of the 1969 fire but of a much larger one in 1952. That photo would become iconic: Flames and thick black smoke on the water envelope a tug boat while firefighters standing on a bridge futilely send streams of water down onto the tug.
The caption under the photo in Time read simply “Boat caught in flaming Cuyahoga,” not acknowledging that it had been taken 17 years earlier — when people found the idea of a burning river far less appalling. Our responses to environmental problems in the future may depend on similar changes of heart.