issue 157 | March 1986
Affluence and effluence
WALK along any seashore, like as not you will be picking your way through waste: gobs of oil in the sand, nylon cordage lacing together the seaweed, broken bottles and aluminium cans, plastic floats and sandals in the shingle. Our flotsam and jetsam is found in most public places. Streets littered with polystyrene french fry containers, parks with dogs faeces and candy wrappings, the countryside with plastic fertiliser sacks and abandoned cars. What careless, irresponsible behaviour. If only everyone were as environmentally concerned as you and me.
But the pollution crisis is about more than individual behaviour. It breaks over us in giant waves. Take acid rain. Half of West Germany's trees are dying from acid rain. That same pollutant is fast destroying Athens' Acropolis. Take nuclear power. The accidental dumping of half a tonne of uranium in the Irish Sea, helps ensure those waters are the most radioactive in the world. Cancer rates around the Sellafleld/Windscale nuclear power station are six times the national average for children. Take heavy metals. There's so much lead in London's air it's unsafe to eat lettuces grown there.
So waste is not just a messy habit of individuals. It is evidence of industrial growth - both Western and Eastern bloc - which can never recognise when enough is enough. Each waste crisis is a signal that the irresistible force of our affluent expanding economies has collided with the immoveable object, the finite resources of the planet. Specifically, the collision is with that most precious, invisible and taken-for-granted of nature's bounty, the ability to dissolve and cleanse. We are overburdening the planet with our rubbish; the effluence of our affluence.
Just how is the waste and pollution of the affluent causing nature's intricate circuits to fuse?
Firstly the system of private profit and convenience is at the expense of the public environment. Simply put, profits means pollution. Little or no accounting is done, for instance, on the damage to clean air or water. Pollution controls are difficult to impose. Their drawbacks are obvious. They can cost the manufacturer money, cutting into profits; they can cost the workforce money, denying them a pay increase; they can cost the consumer money, pushing up a product's price. So there is an unholy and often unwitting alliance between capital, labour and consumer to sweep the problem under the carpet 'There is no special column in society's ledger,' points out Jonathon Porritt in his book Seeing Green, 'to show the advantages of a cleaner environment.'
Lemon juice rain
These benefits are diffuse. How do you put a price on the lost benefits of living on quiet streets, picnicking in pleasant country, playing on clean beaches? On the other hand tough business interests will challenge any pollution control. Lead in petrol (known to be responsible for 50 per cent of the lead in the atmosphere which in turn can affect the cerebral development of children) has still not been outlawed in most countries. Why not? Because of a powerful lead manufacturers' lobby protecting its own industry. And because car manufacturers are worried about possible loss of sales from the $300 cost of the modification to engines. All clear and demonstrable. How can you prove or put any cost on poisoning a child's brain? The US Mid West utility companies coal-fired power stations might be pumping out sulphur dioxide which brings rain with the acidity of lemon juice. The prevailing winds blow it away from their own backyard and Canadian and New England trees and lakes are dying as a result. But scrubbing devices to reduce the emissions of sulphur dioxide from the smokestacks are expensive to fix. Consumers are unhappy with electricity price hikes. The companies successfully lobbied in Washington to scrap the pollution controls. Dead lakes and trees in Canada come cheap in American corporation ledgers.
The environment comes cheap to agribusiness too. In debt to the bank for the giant agricultural machinery and synthetic fertilisers that have to be bought, the farmer is forced by commercial logic to plant the same crop, year in, year out. Crop rotation and allowing the land fallow periods are no longer possible. Heavy repayments on bank loans mean gleaning maximum income from those fields; never mind the consequences for tomorrow. The natural fertility of the soil is replaced by that of the synthetic fertiliser. Over the years the earth becomes dead and vulnerable to wind and rain erosion. The result: the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reports for 1980 that 13-17 million acres of cropland are completely lost to farming every year.
If we argue that pollution means profits, then industry's worst offenders should be the biggest and wealthiest. And this is the case. Petrochemical, car and electronic companies predominate. They are the most profitable precisely because they are getting something for nothing; use of never-to-be-repeated finite resources - like oil and natural gas. Created eons ago and trapped in the geological substrata, these fossil fuels are being fast used up. Nothing is put in their place. And in the process of use, they create waste. Waste which the corporations have little or no responsibility for cleaning up.
Automobile engines are to blame for the choking brown smog that envelops so many of the world's major cities, from Sydney to Mexico City. The acrid haze comes from exhaust fumes interacting with the sun. The emissions produce lead. Governments equivocate. Whilst the more responsible have legislated for cleaner exhausts and more efficient engines - zap the problem with technology - at the same time many encourage more car production and discriminate agalnst public metropolitan transport. The socially responsible left hand doesn't know what the growth-and-jobs right hand is doing.
Flooding the cities
The environmental costs of the private car are not limited to local smog. For the giant corporations and car owners are also responsible for the buildup of carbon dioxide (C02) in the atmosphere. About half comes from car exhausts. At present rates of consumption C02 concentrations will have doubled in 60 years. This could trigger the destruction of the ozone layer which shelters the earth from the harmful effects of the sun's ultra-violet rays. If this happens it would bring a 'hot-house' effect, increasing temperatures by two or three degrees, enough to melt the Arctic and Antarctic icecaps, raising sealevels and flooding all low-lying cities.
No-one knows for sure. The problem is that no-one seems to care either. Cars are convenient. All the benefits are concentrated on the here and now, for industry and the well-off individual. The legacy of pollution is paid by others, and possibly by future generations.
The petrochemical companies have other environmental responsibilities. One of the foremost thinkers on ecology and social justice, Barry Commoner, in his book The Closing Circle expounded one of the fundamental laws of ecology: nature knows best. He was examining the explosion of synthetic substances - most of them made from petroleum - which nature has not produced. Since the 1930s technologists and chemists have been able to manipulate molecules to create synthetic compounds commercially. Their knowledge was founded on physics or chemistry but it lacked the biology of the environment. In the living world there exists an enzyme to break down every organic substance. Recycling is enforced. But along with the production of the synthetics came a new term in the English language: non-biodegradable. Put more simply, plastics and artificial poisons last for ever. They accumulate.
There are now more than 60,000 artificial compounds, with a thousand new ones coming on the market every year. They tend to be synthetic by-products of petroleum: detergents which displace soap, polyester and acrylic which displace cotton and wool, inorganic nitrogen fertilisers displacing animal manure, pesticides displacing natural predators. There are often no effective means of getting rid of the synthetics, and so we and our children have to bear the costs of the non-biodegradable rubbish. The technological trade-off
Of course not all technology is bad. Plastic sandals and acrylic shirts are cheap, and a lot better than nothing in the poor world. Many contemporary drugs have eased suffering. Transistors have brought music and news of the outside world to village life. The advantages of technology are continually extolled. The costs seldom accounted for. Our problem in the affluent world is that we throw so much away.
That rubbish affects us all, but some more than others. For industry can discount the environmental costs that much more easily when it is the poor, the weak and the quiescent that pay. The wealthy can protest or choose where they live, they can move to clean leafs' suburbs or country commuter towns. Others have less choice in the matter. Much of the US petro-chemical industry, for example, is located in Puerto Rico. You do not find many British nuclear power stations located in the prosperous South East. And in all the world's smog-ridden cities the inner-city dwellers are least likely to be driving cars.
The imposition of waste imposed by the giant polluters is not just a matter of ugliness or inconvenience or noise for the poor. The hidden costs also include illness and shortened lives. University of California Medical School has shown that the inhabitants of downtown smog-ridden Los Angeles suffer a far greater frequency of respiratory diseases, bronchitis, asthma, cardiovascular disorders and lung cancer, than rural and suburban dwellers. Predictably the L.A. air affected the weakest most: the children, the aged and the infirm.
Yet it is impossible even for the rich and powerful to avoid all the chemical synthetics that are present in the food, air, water and increasingly in our own bodies. By the time many dangerous pesticides were banned in the US, they had thoroughly contaminated the ecosphere and couldn't be gotten rid of. Banned pesticide dieldrin was found in 99.5 per cent of people tested and 96 per cent of all fish, meat and poultry, years after it was withdrawn from use. DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls - see article - both no longer allowed to be made or used in the US, were turning up long afterwards in all human tissues and food tested. And as the toxic chemicals are stored in human fat tissues, they are highly concentrated in mothers milk. Today it would be illegal to sell most breastmilk in the US, because the chemicals in it exceed the maximum permitted daily dose. Such milk however, is still superior to cow's milk and water, both of which are contaminated too, and don't have the natural protective immunities of breastmilk.
Concern about the carcinogenic nature of the new compounds looks justified. Statistics show that cancer is now the leading cause of death for children one to ten years old, and the second largest killer after heart disease for all Americans. Some - about 25 per cent of cases - are because of smoking. Much of the remainder is the responsibility of the hidden chemical pollutants.
These are the unaccounted for costs of the West's love affair with high-tech growth. And it would seem fair that a pollution price tag, the safe and clean disposal costs, should be met by the polluting industry and the consumer who wants that product. In the real world, as we have explained, that price tag is seldom paid in full. Instead there are continual quiet trade-offs between technical benefits - with their financial advantages - and environmental hazards. Exactly how much should the polluter pay to increase safeguards which in turn might make the product more expensive and less competitive? Economic logic drives you to take risks and cut corners. Who balances the demand for increased turnover with the environmental, social and health costs? Corporations and governments take the decisions by stealth. Yet it is our health and our world that they affect.
Petfoods and nurses
The costs run deeper than polluted air, traffic congestion, radiation hazards, health risks and a lifeless, dead countryside. For the industrial machine spurs us to ever-greater consumption. The social results are shown in Time and Newsweek. Half the pages are concerned with violent crime, economic disaster, international terrorism and possible nuclear war, the other half show carefree happy people behind packs of cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and shining new cars. Glossy advertising engendering greed and envy is found alongside pages showing the consequences of such selfishness and the lack of priority and concern for human suffering. Fritz Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful asked whether the seeds of its own destruction didn't lie in such materialism. 'If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than the collapse of intelligence . . .If whole societies are infected, whilst they are capable of achieving the most astonishing of things, they are incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence.' Societies which endorse a Star Wars programme to make death rays in space when 800 million people on this planet live in absolute poverty is irrational. A society which supports huge industries for petfoods or cosmetics while proclaiming it cannot afford nurses, teachers, social workers or public transport has lost its legitimacy.
An ounce of practice, Schumacher once said, is worth a ton of theory. And to attack the greed and envy which powers the industrial machine, which so cruelly exploits our environment, one must look inwards as well as outwards. Inwards we gain strength by becoming less greedy, resisting the temptation to let luxuries become needs, and reminding ourselves of the environmental costs of what we consume. Outwards we might start by lending our weight to the citizen action groups that campaign to bring into the arena of public debate the costs of technological progress. For the costs of such waste need to be openly put in the scales of balance. They can affect the chances of all of us living in harmony with the natural world.
This special report appeared in the our throwaway world - how affluence causes effluence issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.