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  • Vinod Jain

The River's on Fire!

The year is 1969. It’s around lunch time on Sunday, June 22 at the Cleveland Fire Department. The firemen and other employees are having a leisurely lunch, though aware that the quiet they are enjoying could be shattered at any minute. Just then, a frantic call comes in, and the caller exclaims, “The River’s on Fire.” The telephone operator asks, “What? Is a boat on the river on fire?” “No”, comes the reply. The operator asks again, “Is a building on the riverbank on fire?” “No, no, no. Don’t you understand? The Cuyahoga River is on fire. Do something, please. Now!” At that moment the Fire Department’s alert system gets activated and the firemen jump up to get ready to fight the fire. (The Cuyahoga River goes through the center of Cleveland, Ohio and feeds into Lake Erie.)

It was a relatively minor fire, caused by a train that was passing on a nearby bridge. The train created a spark that ignited an oil slick and some debris in the river. The fire was extinguished in less than 30 minutes. Given that the Cuyahoga River previously had experienced about a dozen fires since 1868, including some major fires that caused the loss of life and millions of dollars in damage, the 1969 fire didn’t receive much attention. No one took a photograph of the fire. (There were no smart phones in 1969!) Even the local newspaper, The Plain Dealer, didn’t carry a story about the fire on its front page; instead, coverage of the fire was included as a brief news item on page 11-C.

The 1969 fire entered national consciousness two months later when Time magazine carried a story about the fire, along with a photo of the river on fire in 1958. National Geographic carried a cover story entitled “Our Ecological Crisis” in its December 1970 issue.

The Cuyahoga River had been a key contributor of industrialization and jobs in Northeast Ohio for over a century; land along the riverbanks was valuable real estate for manufacturing companies. The Civil War (1861-1865) made Cleveland and nearby cities a major manufacturing hub in the nation, and several well-known companies were established there during and after the war. These included American Shipbuilding, Goodyear Tire, Republic Steel, Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, and Standard Oil. By the 1870s, the river was serving effectively as an open sewer and dump site, and it even threatened the city’s water supply.

Everyone knew that the river had practically always been covered by oil slicks and other industrial effluents. But people had good-paying jobs and the economy was humming along. So, no one seemed overly concerned about river pollution and minor fires here and there. In fact, Cuyahoga wasn’t the only river that caught fire. Many other industrial cities, including Baltimore, Buffalo, Galveston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, also had river fires.

The 1969 fire was a minor fire, but it likely led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Cleveland’s Mayor at the time, Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city, along with his brother, Louis Stokes, who served in Congress, pushed for environmental regulation that led to the establishment of the EPA in 1970, after which the Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Now, more than 50 years later, the Cuyahoga River is a clean habitat for fish, insects, birds, and amphibians along its banks. The Cleveland city government and Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency led the cleanup effort. In fact, American Rivers, a rivers conservation association, named the Cuyahoga River as the “River of the Year” in 2019 to celebrate the successful environment protection efforts of the past fifty years.

Every summer, Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist, enters a competition (a “fun and absurd competition” according to her) with some of her friends to see who can swim the most rivers between the summer solstice and fall equinox. This past summer, according to her op-ed in The Washington Post of September 30, 2021, she swam in 108 rivers in eight states—from Southern Pennsylvania to Northern Georgia, west of the Mississippi River on the Missouri border, and east to the Shenandoah River—and won the competition. While she did swim in some exquisite rivers with clear water, brimming with “wild treasures”, she encountered food wrappers, discarded fishing lines, plastic, COVID masks, and much else in most of them. River water can also include “run-off from roads, parking lots, aging sewer systems, pesticide-sprayed row crops, fertilized lawns, slaughter houses and mines.” Her conclusion: “America’s rivers need protection not just from pollution but also from everyday insults.”


Natural resources, such as rivers, beaches, parks, forests, mountains, the air, and others, are national treasures held in common (that is, not owned privately) for the collective benefit of all members of society; they are known as the commons. Since the commons belong to everyone, and to no one personally, the society that benefits from them ideally should govern the resource by setting rules of access and policing their use. However, people sometimes do not have the same level of care for the valuable resources held in common as they would for their personal possessions. It’s a tragedy of the commons when a resource held in common for the benefit of a society is misused by some members with tragic consequences for everyone. For instance, overfishing can lead to imbalances in the food supply and even the extinction of certain species, and the overexploitation of forests has major environmental consequences. The fires on the Cuyahoga River represented a tragedy of the commons, i.e., with everyone benefiting from the river but no one taking care of it.

Scholars have extended the commons metaphor to several other domains, such as the arts, music, and literature (cultural commons), freely available knowledge and information (knowledge commons), and to space impacted by debris left by satellites sent up by humans (space commons).

A commons is a shared resource and is best managed through a culture of shared responsibilities within its user community—a better approach than regulation. Wikipedia is a great example of a successful common resource (knowledge commons), despite the controversies that have arisen over its content in the past. It contains information and knowledge contributed by a huge community of contributors who also police its content by providing appropriate revisions when necessary. Anyone, from scholars to casual readers, can edit content in Wikipedia, which displays the most complete and latest information on various topics, but also opens it up to misuse. Inappropriate edits, whether intentional or otherwise, are corrected quickly, thereby avoiding the tragedy of the commons.

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