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On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    On the Brink
    Book Description:

    As one of the world's great natural treasures, the Great Lakes have also served in recent decades as an early warning system for many emerging environmental problems. In the early twenty-first century, as the Lakes face unprecedented challenges, we need to revisit both the wonder of the Lakes and the perils plaguing them, and to take action to protect this majestic ecosystem.Dave Dempsey weaves the natural character and phenomena of the Great Lakes and stories of the schemes, calamities, and unusual human residents of the Basin with the history of their environmental exploitation and recovery. Contrasting the incomparable beauty and complexity of the Lakes, and the poetry, folklore, and citizen action they have inspired, with the disasters that short-sighted human folly has inflicted on the ecosystem, Dempsey makes this history both engaging and relevant to today's debates and decisions.Underlying the neglectful treatment of the Lakes are two irreconcilable and faulty human assumptions: that the Lakes are a system so big that human beings cannot do great harm to it, and that the Lakes are a resource that can be bent to the will of humankind. Dempsey finds evidence that, despite great changes in the laws governing the Lakes and public attitudes toward them in the last fifty years, government policy and institutions are still dominated by these dangerous attitudes.A central theme ofOn the Brinkis that citizens, who have displayed an increasing sense of commitment to the Lakes and a growing sense of place, must challenge their leaders to reform Great Lakes institutions. While everything from large-scale water exports to global climate change looms in the future of the Lakes, single-purpose solutions do not suffice-no more than a Band- aid would on a gaping wound. Dempsey shows that it is necessary to create a governing system that reflects the realities of life "on the ground" in communities and that taps into the passion and determination of citizens to protect these treasures.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-020-2
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    People don’t experience public policies—just the results of them. They experience foul beaches, declining stocks of contaminated fish, tainted drinking water, skies yellowed by smog, wetlands smothered in concrete, plummeting Great Lakes water levels. Or, if the policies are shaped a different way, they enjoy honey-gold beaches, abundant fish that are safe to eat, clean drinking water, skies as blue as Lake Superior, wetlands that please the eye with vegetation and waterfowl, and Great Lakes levels that cycle in a predictable and mostly natural pattern.

    In fact, people in recent times have experienced both.

    Over the last century and...

  5. Prologue A Day at the Shore
    (pp. 9-21)

    It is a weekend summer day fifty years in the future, roughly as close to the present as the second year of the U.S. Eisenhower administration and the sixth year of the Canadian Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional inBrown v. Board of Educationand Senator Joseph McCarthy betrayed his recklessness and began his descent in congressional hearings televised throughout the United States. The movieRear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Grace Kelly and James Stewart, was a smash hit. Toronto began operating its first subway...

  6. 1 Dreams of Wealth and Glory
    (pp. 23-35)

    In November 1873 three men visited Grassy Island in the Detroit River, within sight of both the Canadian and U.S. shores, for the demonstration of a new technology. A man named Nelson W. Clark carried a large wooden box enclosing a zinc can about thirteen inches square and twenty-two inches deep. Inside the zinc can were ten trays containing fifty-four small boxes each.

    At the island, George Clark furnished “the most perfect arrangements” for obtaining whitefish spawn. He placed two tanks, each about five feet in diameter, by the shore and filled them halfway with water. The two Clarks pulled...

  7. 2 Failing the Fish
    (pp. 37-57)

    Early European observers of Great Lakes fish were almost unanimous in striking a note of dumbfounded wonder at the sheer abundance of aquatic life. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French commandants and Jesuit priests marveled at the size and number of the fish pursued and harvested by native peoples throughout the upper lakes.

    The St. Mary’s River, linking Lake Superior with the lower Great Lakes over a rocky bed, particularly astonished observers. “This river forms at this place a rapid so teeming with fish, called white fish, or in Algonkinattikamegue,that the Indians could easily catch enough to...

  8. 3 Protecting a New Home
    (pp. 59-93)

    The majesty of the Great Lakes region was well-known to its native inhabitants and to some of the discerning European explorers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Canadian and U.S. settlers during much of the 1800s had no time for eyeing beauty. Their imperative was to wring a living from the land. Scenery was a luxury, and the appreciation of forests, fish, or wildlife beyond their potential economic return was foreign to the new inhabitants.

    To these settlers, many features of the Great Lakes landscape that would today seem rich in beauty and mystery—and important biologically—were forbidding...

  9. 4 Degradation
    (pp. 95-111)

    Water—the source of life and the defining characteristic of the Great Lakes region—for generations after European settlement was an afterthought. It was also a dumping ground, an open sewer, and a threat to the public health.

    The rapid population growth and industrialization that transformed the Great Lakes region in the second half of the nineteenth century subjected the waters of the system to the worst insults they had ever known. Crude sewage management methods tolerable for small towns and rural areas were simply incapable of handling the wastes of millions. The early response of governments set a pattern...

  10. 5 Indignation
    (pp. 113-131)

    It had been assumed even Lake Erie, relatively small in comparison to the other lakes, was large enough to break down most of the wastes dumped into it without significant impact. But signs of stress began to accumulate after World War I. Blooms of green algae became a nuisance in the 1930s. Counts of mayfly larvae, an indicator of water quality, plummeted dramatically in the western end of the lake early in the 1950s. A 1953 report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found conditions grim: “At the mouths of most of the tributary streams there exist for long...

  11. 6 Manipulating the Lakes
    (pp. 133-159)

    To some, the Great Lakes have never been quite great enough.

    While quick to recognize the Great Lakes as a treasure for human commerce, American and Canadian governments and some citizens still saw a need for significant improvement on nature’s endowment, and they advanced policies to fulfill this vision from the early nineteenth century to the latter decades of the twentieth. They were impatient to straighten crooked rivers and natural channels, to harness the power of tributaries through dams rather than permitting them to be “wasted” by flowing unfettered, to fill in the wet “wastelands” that lined many of the...

  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  13. 7 The Comeback
    (pp. 161-193)

    In the late twentieth century, it became commonplace to talk about the Great Lakes as a single vast ecosystem. Politicians and top-level environmental officials in national, provincial, and state governments and the news media regularly referred to the interconnections of the lakes and of all the living things in their basins. But this way of thinking and talking is only about the same age as the notion of Spaceship Earth, popularized when astronauts snapped photos of a vulnerable blue-and-white disc drifting through space in the late 1960s. In fact, in approximately 1968, the same year that the U.S.Apollo 8...

  14. 8 Losing the Lakes?
    (pp. 195-225)

    Even before the politically vexing issue of banning chemicals widely used in commerce arose in the early 1990s, governments were reluctant to make choices that would cost industry considerable money, even if it would protect the Great Lakes from an even bigger long-term threat. The zebra mussel had proven that.

    What many in the Great Lakes region did not know after the mussel hitchhiked to the region was that the governments had had a full and fair warning of the danger that contaminated ballast water posed to the biological integrity of the lakes—but they had failed to act. In...

  15. 9 A Future in Peril
    (pp. 227-257)

    The one constant in the evolution of the Great Lakes since the arrival of Europeans is surprise. No government and few individuals foresaw the collapse of fish stocks, the invasion of the sea lamprey, thousands of deaths from typhoid and cholera, the sudden fall of Lake Erie. And while individuals successfully pressed governments to undo these disasters, there was always a great cost. In the twenty-first century, the greatest cost may result from failing to act in advance of disaster.

    Many more people will inhabit the Great Lakes region. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts an increase in population in the...

  16. 10 Hope for Home
    (pp. 259-276)

    Perhaps the residents of the lakes region have a greater capacity for cultivating an ethic of stewardship than the politicians give them credit for. There is, in fact, evidence that a precautionary principle could become the cornerstone of public attitudes toward the lakes. But the evidence does not all point in one direction, and how public thinking and feeling evolves in the next decade or two may determine the fate of these Great Lakes.

    Two Canadians take different but ultimately converging views of whether individuals have developed a protective ethic toward the lakes. Henry Regier, a retired University of Toronto...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 277-300)
  18. Index
    (pp. 301-304)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-305)