On pollution

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

T. Danforth Quayle

When I first became aware of environmental issues back in the 1970s, pollution was a hot topic. Whether it was the use of pesticides like DDT, oil spills (as in the wreck of the Torrey Canyon), the problem of nuclear waste, or the disposal of toxic chemicals (as in the Love Canal disaster), pollution was big news. Nowadays, unless you count the excessive levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, not so much. Why is this?

Before I answer this question, I’d like to divide pollution into two categories. First, there are substances that exist naturally but which we have either put somewhere inappropriate, as in an oil spill, or in inappropriate quantities, as with CO2. Crude oil and CO2 both occur naturally on this planet, but crude oil does not belong off the coast of Cornwall and CO2 should not constitute 412.5 parts per million of the atmosphere, or not if we want good things to happen. There are natural mechanisms that will eventually take care of these things, although not necessarily in ways which we will like. This kind of pollution is bad, no question, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the biosphere as a whole. Large tracts of it, sure, but those tracts don’t affect our shareholders, so that makes it an externality, right?

The second type of pollution consists of substances that do not occur in nature. (Clever old Homo sapiens, eh?) I’m thinking here of things like Strontium-90 or PFAS. As far as I know, the living world presently has no good way of coping with these things. We’re merrily putting them out there in the blind hope that everything will be fine. After all, everything was fine yesterday – well, mostly fine – so everything will be fine tomorrow. Apart from the things that aren’t, and we obviously need more research to prove that those things are anything to do with us.

Possibly a big boy did it and ran off. As I say, more research is needed.

I think we’ve stopped having a conversation about pollution because everyone knows it’s going on – and on an epic and ever-increasing scale – but nobody wants to take responsibility for it or to accept the realities of a world in which it stops happening. And this is the real point. Because we are responsible – you are, I am, every member of industrial civilisation is. We demanded more and cheaper electricity, so nuclear power stations were invented; hence Strontium-90 and all the other nasties that result from that. (Oh yes, and electric cars are going to save the world. Right.)

Once upon a time there was a slogan that went like this: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Well, of course reducing resource or energy use will be bad for economic growth, so that had to be discarded. Likewise reusing stuff implies buying less new stuff, which is likewise bad for growth, so chuck that one as well. Recycling might be okay if someone can make money out of it, but these days it mostly means sending stuff to China to go into a landfill somewhere. (Which it makes it into pollution, of course.)

If you’ve ever drunk alcohol, you have been involved in a little fable about pollution. Yeasts break down organic matter – almost any organic matter – into sugars, which they then use as food. Alcohol is a by-product of this process. From yeast’s point of view, it is excrement. Above a certain level, it is toxic to yeast (and indeed to people). The sediment at the bottom of a barrel of wine or beer consists of yeast which has drowned in its own excrement. I’d call this a sobering thought if that weren’t a contradiction in terms.

We are not, yet, drowning in our own excrement. But it isn’t hard to see how this could occur, perhaps in a more varied and colourful way than the yeast in a wine-barrel, but just as inevitably. And unlike yeast, we will be taking a lot more lives with us as we go. Nobody knows exactly how many species we are driving to extinction by our activities, but the ballpark figure is around two hundred per day. Per day. And that number is rising.

Think about that for a moment. Think about that in the context of the interconnectedness of all life on this planet – which includes you, dear reader. Imagine that you lived at the top of a tall building, and that every day someone randomly knocked out two hundred bricks from the fabric of that building. Would you feel secure? I wouldn’t. I don’t.

We do a lot of things that are inimical to life on this planet. Pollution is only one of them. We cut down forests. We hunt species to extinction. We invade and destroy unique habitats. We do these things not because we need to, but because we choose to – not explicitly, in many cases, but implicitly. If I choose to drive a car, I choose the oil industry, and all the pollution that entails. (Even if I drive an electric car, how is it lubricated? And where does the electricity come from? Not to mention the steel it’s made from, and all the exotic minerals that go into the electronics. And so forth.) If I choose to use a computer, I choose the semiconductor industry, and all the pollution that entails. And so on. This is how industrial civilisation rolls. We all know this, on some level.

Trouble is, this is both horrible and impractical. It’s like heating your house by cremating your immediate family. Not only is that sickening, pretty soon you’re going to run out of children. And that’s where we are.

Sorry if this is a downer, but, well, that’s how it is.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

2 thoughts on “On pollution

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