Archive for January, 2013

“Polluting Paradise: The Formative Years of Willamette River Pollution Abatement, 1920s-1960s”

My colleagues at the Oregon Encyclopedia invited me to give a presentation on the topic of Willamette River water pollution as part of their History Night series. On Monday, January 14, I gave this talk at McMenamins Mission Theater here in Portland. I supplemented my presentation by showing short clips of Tom McCall’s 1962 documentary Pollution in Paradise and William J. Smith’s 1940 film Pollution in the Willamette. There was a great turnout and I extend my thanks to everyone who attended and to those who asked probing questions in response to my talk.

The McMenamins team did an excellent job on the poster:

Polluting Paradise poster Jan 14 2013

The press release for this event that Tania Hyatt-Evenson of the Oregon Encyclopedia and I collaborated on reads:

    Fifty years ago, Portland’s KGW-TV aired a gripping documentary – Pollution in Paradise – that succinctly summarized the deplorable condition of Oregon’s air and water that had become degraded as a result of more than a century of intensive resource extraction, industrialization, and urbanization. Revered journalist (and soon-to-be governor) Tom McCall produced and narrated the hour-long color film. Appearing during the same era as Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering television documentaries and just a few months after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, McCall’s film helped convince Oregon citizens and legislators that much more could be done to balance environmental and economic considerations. McCall has rightly been lauded for helping to clean up the Willamette River and, more generally, helping to conserve and preserve Oregon’s environmental treasures. Though an important milestone in the evolving narrative of Oregonians’ relationship to their natural surroundings, McCall’s 1962 documentary came after nearly forty years of sustained efforts to abate Willamette River pollution.
    This presentation will begin with Pollution in Paradise and progress backwards in time to identify the key moments and give voice to some of the many other people who made important contributions to cleaning-up the Willamette. Just as the river’s water quality was not degraded by one person alone, it was not improved solely by one person.
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Pollution in Paradise turns 50!

On November 21, 1962, KGW-TV of Portland, Oregon, broadcast the television documentary Pollution in Paradise. Television correspondent Tom McCall produced and narrated this film to draw attention to the problems of air and water pollution in the Willamette Valley and throughout the state.

McCall observed in his narration that pollution was a complex topic intertwining social, political, scientific, moral, economic, and environmental issues, but that these issues were solvable so long as Oregonians actively pursued a balance between economic, environmental, and public health. As McCall narrated,

    Some pollution is inescapable, especially in a society such as ours, whose commercial and domestic demands on water and air constantly accelerate. Thus, some water, for example, must be employed for diluting pollution. But how much, and what priorities should be given this use, are central to a great debate, on which the shape of this region and this nation’s future could well hang.

McCall was a well-known and respected journalist with a background in radio and television and prior service in state government. Many Oregonians lauded the documentary for being a clear, concise, and effective overview of the issues. McCall’s boss at KGW-TV, Tom Dargan, sent copies of the film to educators and state legislators. In January 1963 Dargan broadcast the documentary again to influence state legislators into taking stronger actions in support of pollution abatement. Momentum from the documentary did influence legislators in this way and also contributed to McCall’s election as Secretary of State in 1964 and Governor two years later.

The documentary had this kind of effect because of McCall’s renown and the content of the film. It was also effective because it aired in the midst of other influential works on environmental issues and during the formative period of the development of the television news documentary. Pollution in Paradise aired just a few months after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in book form. McCall’s film also appeared not long after Edward R. Murrow’s acclaimed 1960 CBS Reports exposé of the agricultural industry’s mistreatment of migrant workers, Harvest of Shame.

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