Benno Friedman: A riff on the Rest of River

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SHEFFIELD — My folks and I came to live in Sheffield on the banks of the Housatonic in 1951. One of my first questions; could I swim in the river? Their answer, "No. It's dirty. Someday, they will clean it up."

In the mid-1970s, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were legislative victories, a pushback against general corporate indifference to and outright hostility towards anything and everything other than maximizing profit. Pretty cold, not unexpected; a mantra taught in business-school seminaries. With few exceptions, the folks who run corporations are not your friends, despite assurances to the contrary. The needs of living creatures are antithetical to those that fuel corporate growth; how often do we hear their complaints, that regulations stifle the free market, are bad for economic prosperity and so on. Human and environmental health on the chopping block.

Listen up corporate chieftains; In the beginning, there were no regulations. A government, protective of its people, responded to the corporate, "What, Me Worry?" attitude towards environmental degradation and human health. The passage of laws and regulations expressed a vision of a better life, attempting to rein in bad behavior and support societal improvements. But a law without its enforcement is like chicken soup without the chicken.

Years, decades passed. Raw sewage no longer flowed directly into the river, nonetheless the original question/response remained relevant; can I swim in (drink from) the river?


In the early 1990s, a few, like-minded folks sat around the kitchen table and came up with the Housatonic River Initiative. " they will clean it up" became "we will become the "squeaky wheel" and will not stop squeaking until "they clean it up," Our tagline: A fishable, swimmable river.

The HRI's mission since then has been to educate about and advocate for the health and well-being of the river, the co-dependent natural systems and the people residing in Berkshire County. Our positions have been defined by our mission and not by the seduction of shortcuts or financial inducement. Our imagination and vision are not constrained by precedent or what we've been told is impossible. Our goals have been lofty but not unachievable. We understand the need for compromise and on many occasions have acted accordingly, but compromise is not always advisable when advocating for core principles regarding health and safety.

Fast-forward almost 30 years, skipping over the countless meetings, the listening and informational sessions, the arrivals and departures of employees of and appointees to a variety of organizations and administrations, the promises and commitments that were made, only to be broken and unfulfilled.

The river's fate is almost certainly a fait accompli. Signed and sealed.

Many elements within the settlement are river-and-people positive. No argument. Another toxic disposal site in Berkshire County? From my perspective, a huge disappointment, another broken promise and what ultimately will likely be a (another) tragic misstep. Unquestionably, G.E.s a winner. For the rest of us, the crystal ball clouds over. If the past informs the future, landfills eventually leak. All of them. At best, this new one is a temporary patch on a long-term problem. Under the rug, out of sight, everyone else leaves town.

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The signers' chorus sings that it's the best of all possible outcomes, a win/win document. They may be right. But in this moment I only see the shame, their public embrace of the single element everyone one of them vowed to unequivocally prevent from ever occurring. I cannot ignore the man in the shadows, handing out dollar bills outside the voting booth. This capitulation is a painful lesson, a recognition of the power ceded to corporations whose interests trump those of the communities in which they exist, the endless pursuit of profits over the health and well-being of people. As they say when looking for clues or answers; follow the money.

A ray of light shines on our Department of Environmental Protection. Honoring their commitment to oppose any new landfills, they declined to participate in the mediation, withholding their consent. Leading by example.

I won't take up any more of your time to discuss and further defend my/HRI's position. The settlement's terms are being opposed/defended by good people with the best intentions. But once again as it has previously been, this settlement, affecting the health, well-being and safety of all of us was made behind closed doors, in secret. We thought/hoped this time it would be different.

It is not even the outcome that has provoked me, it's the manner by which it was arrived at. The unruly public was not to be trusted, not permitted to decide our own fate. A case of representative government gone wrong, foregoing the bedrock of democratic decision-making, the town-meeting. Discuss, then decide; we vote on budgets, on banning plastic bags and water bottles, on cannabis-related issues, proposed developments, on almost every issue of importance facing our towns. Except on this one.

From a high near 80 percent in the 1960s, the public's trust in their government currently hovers around 17 percent. Might there be some connection between those numbers and the (public-be-damned) decision-making process under question?

From our river to the nation, the system is topsy-turvy, often protecting those (corporate interests) who need it least, not necessarily by design but through disinterest and fatigue, consequently allowing the relentless chorus of corporate self-interest to drown out the rest of us.


The folks who have given up, believing they are powerless, their actions meaningless, who no longer vote or show up; they are just plain wrong. In speech and in silence, Greta's eloquence makes the case. it's a numbers game and our side has the numbers. Let's tape to our walls a big idea that's easy to remember, "Democracy is not a spectator sport." To not participate is to abdicate.

It has always been a question about who shows up. On one side, a stack of hundred dollar bills reach up to the sky. The power, influence and political races that can now legally be bought. The people-be-damned side is in active pursuit of more, of what they already have too much of. They don't have to show up, they hire people to stand in line for them (lobbyists, trolls, misinformation campaigns etc.) But we have the people, whose power and self-interest has yet to be fully expressed, either in the voting booth or in the streets. Another candidate for the wall: you need to show up to be counted. We need to express our needs; we need to form a noisier chorus.

The fate of the river has been decided and sealed. The fate of our country is a work in progress.

Benno Friedman is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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