Documerica: Reflections On Air Pollution

BY ON March 13, 2013

Searching for the Seventies : Documerica graphic

This was written by MCAF’s Social Media Director, Shaun Dakin:

I have a particular fondness for photography exhibits. So when I read the National Archives was opening up their DOCUMERICA archive to the public here in Washington, DC, I jumped at a chance to go.

As I quietly danced (the sounds of the 70’s echoed throughout the rooms) through the exhibit at with my 9 year-old son, I was struck by the fact that while much positive change in the past 43 years has occurred with regards to the environment, many things have not changed.

Take a new look at the 1970s through the lens of a Federal photography project called Project DOCUMERICA. Created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971, DOCUMERICA was born out of the decade’s environmental awakening and produced striking photographs of many of that era’s environmental problems and achievements. DOCUMERICA photographers hired by the EPA took thousands of color photographs depicting pollution, waste, and blight, but they were given the freedom to also capture the era’s trends, fashions, and cultural shifts. The result is an amazing archive and a fascinating portrait of America from 1972 to 1977.” ~ National Archives

Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

Documerica sign, Shaun Dakin


As the Joni Mitchell classic played, I thought about how our national love affair with the automobile continues with little evidence that American consumers are dramatically changing their driving habits. We still have cheap (relatively) gas for our cars, and continue to build subdivisions that create demand, forever expanding highways and roads.

There is good news. The Obama administration announced last summer strong new CAFE standards to increase the fuel efficiency of cars. As announced in the press, “…. ushered in a new era of fuel efficiency standards today by announcing aggressive new regulations that will nearly double fuel economy by 2025 to 54.5 miles per gallon nearly double fuel economy by 2025 to 54.5 miles per gallon.”

Strip Mining and Fracking

Strip Mining On Indian Burial Grounds By Peabody Coal Co, May 1972, William Strode


In the 70’s, the country awoke to the environmental destruction of strip mining. This photograph of strip mining on Indian burial grounds by Peabody Coal Co. in Arizona showed the power of industry to change our natural landscape in profound ways.

Fast forward to 2013 — while strip mining continues, we are just starting the national discussion on the impact of fracking (natural gas extraction) in the USA. What were once rolling green farmlands in rural PA are being developed in a modern day “oil rush” with little understanding of the environmental impacts to those who live near the fracking wells.

Climate Change, Flooding, and Global Warming

Breezy Point, Long Island, 05/1973, Arthur Tress, Arthur


2012 Breezy Point, Long Island after Hurricane Sandy


Take a look at these two photographs from Breezy Point, Long Island. The one was from 1973  was clearly meant to document the environmental impact of dumping trash. It also shows the highrise low-income housing projects that were being built at the time. The other photograph of Breezy Point was taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, now the threat of global climate change is very much part of the global political discussion. Moms Clean Air Force has been on the forefront of demanding our leaders take action on climate change.

Final Thoughts

Much has changed for the better in America since the EPA was founded by Richard Nixon in reaction to the public outcry of what we were collectively doing to our natural environment. The Clean Air and Clean Water acts have dramatically improved our lives.

In same ways, this was easy compared to the challenge of global warming. As I remarked to my 70 year-old father who was sitting in the Smithsonian Ice Rink across from the Archives, “We could see the pollution in the 70’s.” We could point to the river that was burning and say enough! And we could do something about. At the same time, we could see the smog in our cities and we could take action. We could clean the air.

With climate change, the challenge is global. The challenge is for all of humanity. We may not be able to SEE and FEEL all the problems yet, but we must do something TOGETHER to fix our climate crisis before it’s too late.

LEARN MORE about the DOCUMERICA and the exhibit at the National Archives.



TOPICS: Clean Air Act, Clean Air Rules and Regulations, Climate Change, Dads, Politics, Pollution, Social Justice