The Audacity of Slope, or How The River Gets Its Groove Back

One hundred and twenty years ago, no one asked, "What do we owe the Chicago River?" Yet today, making amends for past abuses seems to me to be the central biological, physical and moral challenge of our time.
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On May 29, 1889, the Chicago Sanitary District was established by the Illinois General Assembly in order to protect the drinking water supply for people in Chicago. This recent anniversary prompted me to wonder, What would have happened if Chicago had not reversed the river? Would Chicago still have managed to become a soaring metropolis or would sanitation and health problems have stunted its growth, sending people and industry to St. Louis or St. Paul?

You see, as Chicago grew in the mid-19th century, people dumped all manner of human, animal and industrial waste directly into the Chicago River, which flowed in marshy, sluggish fashion into Lake Michigan, the source of the city's drinking water. Storms would swirl contaminated filth out toward the water intake pipes. Episodes of cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases afflicted the populace. Sanitary engineers searched for a fix and found it in the river. In the jargon of the day, the solution to pollution was dilution -- let's flush our waste downstream!

Remember, in the late 1880s, there was no Environmental Protection Agency. No one knew about watersheds or ecosystems. Ecology was a nascent discipline. With enough money and enough will, human agency could solve any problem. Let's tilt that baby in the other direction -- the audacity of slope! Thus, 120 years ago, in part because it was the cheapest alternative, we reversed a river and saved a city. We dug miles of canals to convey sewage downstream and to carry barge traffic on inland waterways to a bustling urban center.

No one ever imagined that one day people would canoe or kayak on these waterways; no one envisioned that these open sewer pipes could become part of a vibrant 21st century metropolis, that the number of fish species would increase, that endangered black-crowned night-herons would make a home here, that people would no longer turn their backs to the water but see it as an amenity and an attraction. One hundred and twenty years ago, no one asked, "What do we owe the river?"

Yet today, making amends for past abuses seems to me to be the central biological, physical and moral challenge of our time. (Think global climate change.) Today, we know more -- and we know better. We know that we do not have to foul our environment in order to live healthy lives -- indeed, that fouling our nest leaves both humanity and the rest of nature worse off. We know that we can have a robust economy while also protecting and restoring our ecology. And we know, as John Muir famously stated, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

Thomas Berry, who died June 1 at the age of 94, was one of the foremost writers and thinkers on the subject of a new age on Earth, what he termed the "Ecozoic Era."

The central challenge that Berry poses -- the "Great Work" remaining for us to do -- is to move from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. In other words, to move from a world in which man dominates the Earth and natural resources exist primarily for us to use or abuse to a new paradigm of an Earth community in which we exist as stewards and caring kin with the rest of nature. Ecocentrism -- putting the Earth first -- recognizes that we are mutually dependent with all life systems on this home planet. Berry's vision was to establish "a new reciprocity of humans with the Earth and of humans with one another."

That, of course, was not the predominant ethic in 1889, when people treated rivers as places to dump our fecal matter. We did not view rivers and streams as living ecosystems worthy of our care. The principles of Berry's new Ecozoic Era are such that "any valid Progress must be progress of the entire life community, not progress of the human at the expense of the non-human members of the community."

I have been mulling over this question, What do we owe the river? The Chicago River -- manipulated, channelized, reconfigured -- has been called the artery running through the heart of the city. Do we have the vision, the will and the wherewithal to clean up this urban working river, making it safer for recreation, healthier and more beautiful?

This is not a simple question. And yet, are we not diminished as a people if we continue to treat our water as a waste product and our rivers as garbage dumps? Now we try to make amends. We are removing dams to encourage fish survival; reintroducing fire to enhance prairie habitat; re-seeding and restoring and engendering humility.

Those of us who have access to water from the Great Lakes -- through the accident of birth or the exercise of volition -- are enormously lucky we live near one of the world's great natural resources. As such, it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate wise stewardship of this precious, irreplaceable liquid asset, our fresh water. What, then, is our shared responsibility to the lake and to the river? Can we craft a future that meets human needs for an adequate supply of freshwater and those of the rest of nature? Can we demonstrate the restraint, respect and, yes, love, necessary to provide for the Hine's emerald dragonfly, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Hines and their offspring?

Let me close with three words: Yes we can.

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