I had the honor of saying a few words of welcome to those gathered for the recent meeting of the Upstate Freshwater Institute on the ESF campus and to contemplate the symbolic value in Onondaga Lake.
The public is crisis weary. Having endured a seemingly endless stream of environmental catastrophe predictions through the latter half of the 20th century, from biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 warning about the coming population bomb to current concerns about the biodiversity crisis and climate change, the public may be partially forgiven for its skepticism and selective tuning out of more bad news. Yet public engagement is essential for effectively confronting environmental challenges.
Perhaps some good news is in order that restores a sense of optimism. It struck me that Onondaga Lake, with the dubious distinction of once having been identified as North America’s most polluted lake, is becoming such a symbol of hope. The progress made over the past couple of decades is nothing short of remarkable. While there remains a long way to go, it is nonetheless an example of measurable progress.
It would be a good thing to intentionally hold up Onondaga Lake as a success story in the making, to issue periodic report cards heralding the step-by-step progress in the cleanup. The lake is a metaphor for the relationship between humankind and nature, a yardstick by which we can measure the degree to which we have learned our lesson. Overexploitation, callous polluting and ignoring the “laws” of ecology that dictate the breaking point of stressed systems led us to literally toxic consequences, while attention to those same principles and application of environmental knowledge have reversed course for the lake.
As steady progress in the recovery of Onondaga Lake is measured and reported, so, too, is our progress on the path toward being responsible stewards of natural resources. If the lake can be returned to health, there is hope for less-damaged systems. If we can acknowledge that we are part of nature, not apart from it, then perhaps we will grant the natural world its due respect. What was emblematic of human carelessness and hubris is becoming a powerful symbol of hope, a signal that we, too, can do better and, in fact, have already made progress. Learning from past mistakes and scientific advances, we, like Onondaga Lake, have a second chance.