In the early 1970s, an amazing photojournalism project called Documerica captured a polluted nation in the midst of establishing its first major environmental protections. Documerica was sponsored by the fledgling E.P.A., which hoped to document and examine the extent of the country's environmental troubles. A team of talented photographers was assembled to shoot, in breathtaking, uncompromising detail, the unchecked air pollution, contaminated waterways, hazardous coal mines, and some truly disturbing waste issues across the U.S.
The National Archives has just published the project online, and the results are stunning. Here's a glimpse of what the nation would look like without environmental protections and the efforts of the E.P.A. to enforce them.
Have you ever wondered, for instance, what it would look like if we were to burn an industrial helping of automobile batteries? If so, you'll be glad to know it looked just like the photo pictured up top.
Below, take a look at the streets of Cleveland, circa 1973.
The water lapping up on Staten Island beach was so polluted that no one was allowed to walk within 25 feet of it:
And Queens' Jamaica Bay was thoroughly contaminated with garbage and other harmful detritus:
It was a time when coal miners worked in extremely hazardous conditions ...
... and were often afflicted with black lung disease:
Here's Boston enveloped in smog:
And here's New York City's George Washington bridge cloaked in more of it:
Most of these photos aren't outright horrifying or mind-blowingly damning, though some are. Instead, they reflect a time where people were expected to tolerate the deleterious effects of industrial pollution, to live with the accompanying health woes and decaying environments. For nearly four decades now, we've learned to expect better. We demand our government keep tabs on polluters, we exhort corporations to clean up their messes and to keep us safe from the byproducts they create.
But though we've come a long ways, there's still much to be done. Power plants still loose mercury and other pollutants into the air, and afflict, injure, and shorten the lifespan of millions. Particulate pollution from cars and industry is still a problem, and new threats like mountaintop removal mining pose great dangers to cherished pristine environments. Furthermore, the corporate influence over our politics is moving the needle ever-rightward on these matters, away from still-necessary protections and towards more free reign for polluters.
The regulations, rules, and protections that the E.P.A. enforces have improved our everyday lives in countless ways, from the inner city to rural Appalachia. So here's a hearty thanks to the photographers and project coordinators at Documerica for making that wonderfully clear.
If you want to see more, there's a nice selection of Documerica on Flickr.