The Laboratory Library: Book Review

On the Brink (2004) by Dave Dempsey

On the Brink by Dave Dempsey

No single location in the state of Michigan is more than 85 miles from the shores of one of the Great Lakes. One of Earth's most valuable natural resources, the Great Lakes are not only habitats for abundant wildlife and foliage, but have provided humanity with food, drinking water, transportation and recreation for centuries. In fact, humanity's survival is as much a part of Great Lakes history as that of the salmon and the trout.

It is with this perspective in mind that we must consider the work of Dave Dempsey, recent recipient of the 2009 Michigan Author Award, presented by the Michigan Library Association for "his outstanding contributions to literature." While not his most recent work, "On the Brink" (2004) is perhaps the best representation of his worldview. A historical account of the Great Lakes region and those impacted by the glory of the inland seas, "On the Brink" presents insights into the development of environmental policy in the United States and Canada. For nearly two centuries, the two nations have tackled environmental issues that threatened the viability of these precious waterways. This book claims there will be an impending environmental disaster if Great Lakes region inhabitants do not change their behaviors.

Following George Santayana's adage "Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it," Dempsey asks readers to recognize the natural beauty that surrounds us and urges for proscribed steps toward preserving it. Dempsey's analyses, however, fail to provide readers with a better understanding of what must truly change if the Great Lakes are to be saved. Bad environmental policy is the true culprit in the Great Lakes story, and Dempsey was part of this tale for nearly three decades.

Dempsey served as an environmental regulator and adviser to Gov. James Blanchard for six years (1983 to 1989), and as program director at the nonprofit Clean Water Action. In 1994, Dempsey was named policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, where he worked until 1999. Dempsey was also appointed a member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission by President Bill Clinton and served from 1994 to 2001. Dempsey is currently on the board of directors for the Alliance for the Great Lakes and works as communications director for Conservation Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn.

The prologue of "On the Brink" outlines a fictional story of a family 50 years in the future. On a vacation in the Port Huron region, the family takes advantage of all the modern technology available to them, reading about the history of the Great Lakes on monitors while staring at empty lakebeds. The fictional short story closes with a sensationalized and somewhat misguided message that leads us to believe the Great Lakes ecosystem is disappearing before our very eyes.

Dempsey's recommendation for curbing environmental threats to the Great Lakes presents a contradiction. He concludes that having "independent fact-finding commissioners with the ability to assess the effectiveness of existing programs, anticipate future problems, and sound the call for important changes" is the ideal solution for addressing environmental problems in the Great Lakes states, pointing to Canada as a model worthy of replication.

Such commissioners or boards, however, would only create additional layers of government bureaucracy and not be accountable to voters.

Dempsey further notes that the history of the Great Lakes has proven that "government can misspend as well as spend wisely" and that "it is not government but the people who elect and support government who will decide the fate of the Great Lakes." How will the people be able to "decide the fate of the Great Lakes" if they are not in fact electing the individuals charged with overseeing the future of the lakes?

Furthermore, Dempsey cites instances where existing boards and commissions ignored the public interest to maintain the favor of those who appointed them to office — the state and federal legislatures. Therefore, it cannot be reasonably expected that new commissions and boards would in fact support the public interest.

To determine future conservation steps, one must answer an age-old question as it pertains to environmental policy: What is the role of government? Dempsey, however, does not directly address this question. His conclusions only leave the reader more confused about what he believes to be the proper course of action.

For example, in the case of fish population decline, it seems Dempsey would advocate greater degrees of regulation to mitigate overfishing. Yet, in the same instance he calls the government "incompetent" and therefore incapable of properly addressing environmental issues.

In Chapter 3, Dempsey applauds the efforts of the Canadian government to protect portions of the Niagara landscape and southern Ontario timberlands in the late 19th century by establishing a series of public parks. However, in Chapter 10 he expresses little faith in government's ability to spend wisely to protect lake resources. It would seem that the success of government-based environmental protection is as consistent as Dempsey's analyses.


On the Brink: A Chapter Blow-by-Blow

Chapter 1, "Dreams of Wealth and Glory," recounts the discovery of the Great Lakes region by French and English settlers. Dempsey acknowledges that the local fur trade only flourished because the luxurious indulgences of the royal European classes created a high demand for the furs. According to Dempsey, this use of natural resources led to the utilization of the Great Lakes as a "tool rather than a home."

In Chapter 2, "Failing the Fish," Dempsey explains how poor government oversight and special interest groups led to a steep decline of the fish population in the first half of the 20th century due to overfishing and parasitic wildlife. Nearly 50 years passed while federal and local governments in the United States and Canada deliberated about the most effective method of regulating commercial fishing. Meanwhile, invasive species like the lamprey virtually destroyed the fishing industry by feeding on native fish species. Dempsey highlights "government incompetency," but fails to explore the possibility that private ownership of fishing waters could give anglers an incentive to explore environmentally friendly ways of eliminating the invasive species and maintaining their revenue source: the native fish. This method has been used successfully along the Yellowstone River Valley near Livingston, Mont., where spring creeks begin and end on private property. Owners charge fees for fly-fishermen who come from around the world in search of trout, and have taken steps to protect these assets, such as limiting livestock grazing along the banks and protecting other wildlife in the area. The state-owned Spring Creek in Lewiston, Mont., on the other hand, has free access but is crowded and offers a reduced fish population.

Chapter 3, "Protecting a New Home," recounts the region's settlement. However, Dempsey laments the fact that technological progress after the Civil War enabled settlers to grow more crops in the previously uninhabitable swampland of southern Michigan. Dempsey also explains in stunning detail the decades-long advocacy projects sponsored by local residents in the Lake Michigan dunes regions of Illinois and Indiana. Unfortunately, this portion of Great Lakes history provides a warning to us all about how special interest groups can manipulate government action to serve the privileged few.

Chapters 4 and 5, "Degradation" and "Indignation," respectively, expose the problem of pollution. Undoubtedly, decades of dumping sewage and industrial waste into the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region caused countless outbreaks of disease among humans and wildlife. This problem, however, is a result of a tragedy of the commons. This term describes the overuse and abuse that result from a lack of private ownership. In the most basic sense, if no one owns it, then no one will take responsibility for it.

The waters of the Great Lakes are no exception. As Dempsey points out in these chapters, government solutions to the contamination of public waterways only provided short-term fixes to long-term problems that still plague the region. While pollution significantly decreased after grassroots activists petitioned for government intervention in the early to mid-20th century, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year maintaining the waterways and public lands along the shoreline when many of the taxpayers do not in fact live along the water's edge.

Chapter 6, "Manipulating the Lakes," maps man's efforts to "improve" the appearance of the lakes. Highly critical of these initiatives, Dempsey explains that while many canal and dam projects were either explored or even begun, few actually materialized. The Erie and Welland canals, as well as the St. Lawrence Seaway, however, have become hallmarks of navigable ingenuity and industrial design. These manmade wonders unfortunately gave way to the unforeseen introduction of non-native predatory wildlife. Private efforts to restore fish populations to their original state often remedied the problem in the interests of maintaining the commercial fishing industry.

In Chapter 7, "The Comeback," Dempsey gives a very thorough examination of the conservation movement in the mid-20th century and its impact on the Great Lakes, paying particular attention to the region's DDT and pesticide contamination. With ecosystem recovery, however, came an onslaught of increased government regulation that has severely damaged human prosperity in recent decades.

In Chapter 8, "Losing the Lakes," Dempsey criticizes a plethora of government inaction. He gives case evidence for scenarios in which the federal, state or Great Lakes board authorities were aware of potential threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem but did nothing to mitigate risk and curb environmental destruction. In some instances, government acted, but was ineffective.

Chapter 9, "A Future in Peril," discusses the future risks facing the Great Lakes. Dempsey cites population growth, global warming leading to dropping water levels, increased pesticide use, exporting the water to drought-ridden areas in the western United States, increased commercial shipping and invasive species as prime examples of looming threats.