Can we build a green culture in NW Ohio?


On Friday, I drove out to Point Place to meet Mike Ferner, the former city councilman, mayoral candidate, and longtime activist.

I have never much liked that word, “activist.” But it fits Mike Ferner. Movement people, like church people, can creep a person out. But Ferner is a man of conviction and constancy. A vet of the Vietnam era who turned antiwar when he was taking care of wounded vets while still in the Navy, he has remained a peace warrior ever since. He’s proud of his two felony convictions for painting “troops out now” on an overpass during the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. He lives his values, and that’s heroic.

Ferner’s other great concerns have been conservation and corporate power, so I thought he would be an interesting person to talk with in light the the current sickness of the lake. In fact, he lives right on Lake Erie, in a house as warm, solid, and modest as most of the homes in Point Place. Ferner has lived there with his wife, Sue Carter, for 30 years. They keep a spectacular garden of native plants and flowers.

Friday was an incredibly beautiful day, light and balmy, and Point Place is such a unique and unhomogenized community. It never gets listed as one of the treasures of Toledo. But it is, really. And the view from the homes on the point is magnificent.

The algae was also washing ashore this day in visible masses, I was told, for the first time this summer. What if it had been a hot summer?

A sentiment I have often heard, and even expressed myself, is that logically, geographically, Point Place should be a tourist destination — a place with gated communities, grand homes, hotels, and casinos. Ferner expressed a different notion — that the best possible Point Place is the one that exists now. That is, a place of working-class folks, small homes, ma and pa shops, and “people who take over grandma’s house when she passes and raise another generation of kids.”

Ferner is involved now in the “move to amend” movement, which would stipulate that corporations are not legal persons with constitutional rights. He thinks that’s the key to why we have been destroying our fresh water here and elsewhere — corporate power. He notes that it took two generations to curb the dumping of industrial waste into Ohio rivers and lakes because of the economic and political power of the companies doing the dumping. He hopes it will not take as long to curb the dumping of pesticides and manure into Lake Erie by megafarms and agribusiness, because the lake could be a dead lake by then.

For him it’s all about the right of the community to curb economic power. Voluntary restraints on polluting the lake have not worked, he says. Look at where we are. We need tough legislation and regulation.

As it happened, Ferner had gone up with a friend in a private plane the day before to see for himself. Lake Erie is his front yard, after all. He’s got a stake. He said you could see the algae on the surface of the water — miles and miles of thick green slime. You could see it from 1,000 feet.

We stood before that front yard and watched the water move below the breeze and the sun and I wondered what would happen to this community if we let Lake Erie die — not the greater, wider community of northwest Ohio, and its tourism, boating, and various heavy industries. To lose those things would be catastrophic. And all of those things have been hurt by the water shutdown in Toledo and the closing of beaches, and the blooms. But I am talking about the community of Point Place — that humble, funky village where ordinary people live by the water.

Ferner talks to me about his mentor, legal theorist Richard Grossman. And he talks to me of days gone by when courts and attorneys general shut down businesses for harming communities. Mr. Grossman said “the law reflects the culture.” There was a time when community need trumped corporate power in certain extreme instances.

The question is whether northwest Ohio can change its current culture. If so, the law will follow.

Can we create a green culture in Toledo? Not green in the sense of algae or money but green in the sense that saving a Great Lake is the master value — something that matters more than a political lobby or an economic interest group.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.