As Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took the podium in Ken Olsen Science Center’s MacDonald Auditorium Monday night, November 4, it did not take long to realize that Gordon College’s distinguished guest felt right at home.
McCarthy is a New Englander through and through. She was raised just outside Boston in Canton, Massachusetts, and educated at UMass Boston and Tufts University. She returned to her hometown to take her first job in environmental and public health policymaking, eventually moving on to high-ranking posts in Massachusetts state government before becoming Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (her last post before her EPA appointment). When not in Washington, she lives with her husband in Jamaica Plain, and she holds to the unmistakable Bostonian affinities: Dunkin’ Donuts, the Red Sox, and, sparingly, the word “wicked.”
Informed by her own Boston past—inextricably linked with the history of environmental distress and rejuvenation characterizing the Massachusetts Bay area’s past half-century—McCarthy articulated her main focuses as head of the EPA: public health and environmental stewardship. Of course, “public health” can sometimes get lost in our thinking about the EPA, since it’s not written into the agency’s name; it is, however, clearly stated in its mission statement: “to protect human health and the environment.” Environmental factors play a tremendous role in ongoing human health and well-being.
McCarthy recalled how, as a child, she routinely needed to clean oil off her skin after swimming in the waters around Boston. The Merrimack River would run green one day, yellow the next, depending on what dyes the textile factories were using. She remembered discovering, during her tenure within the Canton town government, toxic deposits in the very neighborhood where she grew up.
Yet today, McCarthy reminded those in attendance, due to a tremendous upwelling of public concern and decades of hard work by policymakers and community members alike, Boston’s water is clean, the Merrimack is clear, her old neighborhood is safe, and Massachusetts continues to boast its natural beauty as one of its key geographic advantages. “It all comes down to human beings working together with other human beings [at a local level],” McCarthy stressed. It is through the involvement and engagement of communities and passionate individuals that significant gains for public health and the environment have been earned.
Today, she explained, Americans face an environmental, economic, and public health threat that is harder to see because it doesn’t cloud the air with smog or clot the rivers with oils and dyes. The threat is climate change brought about by unsustainable carbon dioxide emissions, a threat which McCarthy urged the audience to take seriously, and to take action against. Amid the divisions that seem to plague Washington, McCarthy still holds tremendous hope for the democratic, cooperative civic process, which she witnessed bring such dramatic change to her home region years earlier.
As she spoke with Gordon President D. Michael Lindsay during the conversation portion of the event, McCarthy addressed questions ranging from the environmental and economic impact of hydro-fracking to the United States’ ability to partner with countries, like China, that seem to lag behind the U.S. in addressing emissions and pollution issues, and may even gain an economic edge by avoiding such problems. One of the best tacks we can take with a country such as China, McCarthy posited, is to “make data transparent.” That is, we can work to provide the Chinese people with crucial information on the level and impact of pollution they are experiencing (Administrator McCarthy and President Lindsay discussed the example of an air quality meter publicly displayed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as a small example of such transparency). And, ultimately, McCarthy expressed confidence in China’s commitment to facing the environmental challenges its rapid industrialization has brought about.
As their conversation neared its close, McCarthy returned once more to her roots in a discussion of the practical ways in which “we are—and have to be—stewards of the environment” in our daily lives. “It’s all about how we live,” McCarthy said, “My father used to chase me around the house shutting off lights. He didn’t do that because he was worried about carbon emissions; he did it because he was worried about the bills. Well, do the same thing, only now worry about carbon emissions, please.”
Small things—drops of oil, molecules of air, spurts of electricity, individual people and their choices—make a difference because they rarely stay individual. They coalesce into goodness, or into harm, but they will not remain isolated. When individuals came together years ago in Massachusetts, they cleaned up Boston’s bay, its rivers and its neighborhoods. Monday night, McCarthy encouraged the audience to apply this same principle to a new generation of challenges and opportunities for stewardship.