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Forty years ago this January, the Environmental Protection Agency sent freelance photographers across the United States to document the state of the nation’s environment. Now, the National Archives and Records Administration has brought these “Docuamerica” images back to light. Within the collection of 80,000 images, there are shots of the sad states of the country’s air, land, and waterways. But there are also glimpses of ingenious problem solving, like tiny electric cars and houses built of discarded cans, that presage the green innovations growing in popularity today.
The smog pouring out of this Houston factory comes from burning old car batteries. These days, they’re typically recycled, which can pose health hazards too, but does prevent this sort of air-polluting plume.
Air pollution doesn’t stay in the vicinities of the factories that create it, of course. In 1973, smog in New York City was so thick it obscured the George Washington Bridge.
For years, engineers' mantra was “dilution is the solution to pollution”: Dump waste into a river, and it was no longer a problem. Even after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, factories continued to dump into waterways. This effluent came from the International Paper Company Mill in Maine.
As the oil crisis drove gas prices up and limited supply, the '70s also saw some of the first national efforts at energy innovation.
At the First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, General Motors displayed the Urban Electric Car, a predecessor to the ill-fated EV1.
The Sundancer, another early electric vehicle, was commissioned by a battery company and built by a race-car engineer.
Some of the Docuamerica photos reveal the same type of creative re-use that’s in vogue right now. In New Ulm, Minnesota, one photographer found a fence made entirely out of old tire rims.
One of the most ambitious efforts captured by the EPA photographers was a project by Michael Reynolds to build houses out of the discarded beer and soda cans that littered the landscape.
Reynolds built the houses outside of Taos, New Mexico. First, he created building blocks from old cans.
Then, he built non-load-bearing walls. The walls were meant to be covered in plaster for a more traditional aesthetic.