Excerpted from Fighting Pollution and Climate Change: An EPA Veteran’s Guide How to Join in Saving our Life on Planet Earth, by Richard W. Emory, Jr. www.fightingpollutionbook.com, BookLocker Publishing, August 2020.
At the sounding of the horn, some women—permanent residents of our little town—grabbed their sharpest knives and rushed out their front doors. In the street, they were joined by hungry cats, and excited children like me, eight years old and attracted to the commotion. We all rushed down the road to the harbor to see coming in from the sea the sardine transport boat arriving at what we called “the fish factory.” Being halfway “down east” on the coast of Maine, the town women anticipated a rare payday. The year was 1949.
After being lifted out of the hold of the transport boat, the little fish would travel down a long, watery sluice roofed over to keep out the gulls. The smells, sights, and sounds—squawking gulls, meowing cats, heavy motors running, the women talking and their knives flashing as they worked, water rushing down the sluice—were irresistible to me and the other town children there too. Then the sardine carrier’s hold was emptied, all was packed, and the fish factory became empty. In their homes, the women put some cash in their dresser drawers and resumed preserving summer fruits and vegetables to keep in their cellars against the long, hard winter to come. All too soon it would be September, and I would be taken 600 miles south to my parents’ home in Baltimore.
After a long school year in a big city, finally, June would come again, and I would return to live in my grandmother’s home at the cold harbor. Another summer had come to the coast of Maine and then would come another, but the big sardine boat never returned. The fish factory became a boatyard for building and repairing the yachts and small pleasure boats of summer. Fish-processing jobs were surely tough, low-paying, and intermittent, and in 2010 the last Maine sardine factory closed. Whether the year-round people of the town considered this change to be for the better or worse, I cannot say. To me, the arrival of the sardine boat is a shimmering memory of big excitement during carefree and glorious summer days. But a way of life was ending, and in 1959 my childhood would end too.
Long since I was so lucky to have been a summer child living on the Maine coast, I have wondered—why did the sardines disappear? Today, I contemplate the end of the fish factory as the irreplaceable loss of a working marvel. Now we know that around the world many fisheries have been exploited to the point of commercial extinction. Man-made plastics are being eaten by and killing marine animals, birds, and fish, and scientists say that in a few decades there will be a greater weight of plastics than fish in the sea. As the climate changes in Maine, it is possible in future decades that the lobsters and clams may disappear like the sardines. In 50 years, for today’s children now on the Maine coast, digging at low tide for clams, like seeing lobster boats going and coming—these too may become just shimmering memories of a colorful way of life gone by.
The mystery and beauty of the coast certainly affected me, and forty years later I found myself serving as our nation’s top lawyer for all EPA investigations of pollution crime. I concluded my EPA career in 2011 after seventeen years of foreign-assistance service worldwide, advising other nations on U.S. strategies for implementing clean air and water laws. Along the way, I saw too many man-made insults to nature, including oncoming climate chaos.
Now our planet is in danger of losing its life. Paleontologists and geologists confirm that, since life on Earth first began a half-billion years ago, there have been five mass extinctions. In at least four of the past extinctions, carbon dioxide in the air exceeding the level of 1,000 parts per million caused the oceans to become poisoned with deadly hydrogen sulfide. This chemical, being emitted from the sea as gas, turned the air permanently green and killed most life on land. Yet we continue burning fossil fuels, leaking methane and refrigerants. In these and other ways, we are thoughtlessly damaging the air, the sea, and the climate in the same ways as nature caused previous extinctions. Being the Earth’s most invasive species, humanity is driving other creatures to extinction at an unnatural rate. In about 200 years, it is likely that our man-made air pollution will reach the level to poison the sea and then the sky. If my generation and today’s leaders continue business as usual, the last people to live on Earth may be our great-great-grandchildren. Then – like the sardines of Maine – they all will be gone, never to be seen again.