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Renowned environmentalist speaks at UWRF

By Samantha Wenwoi
APRIL 23, 2007-- Renowned environmentalist and policy-maker John Cronin emphasized the fragility of our planet as the keynote speaker for the first American Democracy Project Midwest Regional Conference at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls April 12-14. "Planets are precious," said Cronin. "We think of the universe as being filled with them; they're not."

He recited a quote from the astronomical best-seller, "Comet," by celebrated astrobiologist Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan: "If any one of us was randomly inserted into the universe, the chance that we would land on or near a planet is one in a billion-trillion-trillion."

A native of Yonkers, NY, Cronin has made it his life's mission to conserve America's navigable waters. Called a "hero in one of the great success stories of the modern environmental movement" by the Miami Herald, Cronin has more than 30 years of environmental experience. The former commercial fisherman's work protecting the Hudson River has garnered him a Time Magazine "Hero for the Planet" award. And in his current capacity as the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University, he is using his years of ecological know-how to educate the minds of tomorrow's leaders.

But, as the environmentalist informed the audience, he did not always have the passion to make a difference. Cronin said he spent his childhood largely ignorant of the river that ran through his hometown.

 "I was part of the first generation that grew up apart from the river," he recalled. "None of us cared about the river and the environment." The Hudson River of the 1950s and 1960s was a river dirtied by the numerous industrial plants that lined its shores, he said. "It was the paradigm of a polluted waterway."   

It wasn't until Cronin came of age during the 1970s that his interest in protecting the environment was awakened, he said. With the American public clamoring for environmental reform, President Nixon signed numerous pieces of legislation into law meant to protect the natural world. Among those laws was what Cronin cited as his "favorite" mandate, the Clean Water Act.

Passed in 1972 and amended in 1977, the Clean Water Act was the first law to explicitly state that the waterways of the United States were to be held in the public trust. If the law was breached by state or federal government, Cronin said, the public had the right to take legal action. Among the goals of the Clean Water Act were to make all U.S. waterways usable by 1983 and eliminate water pollution by 1985.

But as Cronin told the audience, the government has not held up its end of the bargain. "By any measure the Clean Water Act has been an abject failure."

Cronin served on the investigative task force for Love Canal and worked as a commercial fisherman for three years, but he was looking for an occupation that allowed him to be more environmentally proactive. "I was dreaming of a job where I got to be out on a boat, where I got to investigate polluters and I got to lobby," he said.

He found his "dream job" when he was appointed the official Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983. Hired as the first full-time riverkeeper in the nation, Cronin's duties entailed patrolling the waters of the river he grew up on, with his presence acting as a deterrent for polluters. It was during Cronin's 17-year stint as a riverkeeper that he became involved in the investigation of high profile pollution cases. It was the successful prosecution of these cases that gave Cronin the confidence that he was in fact effecting change. "It was possible to do David and Goliath stuff on the river," he said.  

Due to the success of the Hudson Riverkeeper program, similar models were launched in the United States and other countries. There are currently 156 keeper programs in operation, Cronin said.

Cronin stressed the importance of incorporating environmental learning into the school system, mentioning that higher education was "absent" from the ecological debate. "There is no better way of affecting our environmental future than integrating environmental pedagogy into our schools."

Even though the United States still has a long way to go in terms of complete environmental reform, Cronin said that he is optimistic about the potential for change. His parting words offered a glimmer of inspiration to those in attendance: "The future will be the one you imagine if you're brave enough to do it."

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