1980s >> 1983 >> no-951-november-1983

Pollution: capitalism’s exhaust system

As world population increases by about 2 per cent a year, and as industry expands to meet new market demands — not, be it noted, human needs, since two thirds of that increase belongs to the starving and impoverished Third World who do not constitute a market for capitalist production — so the rate of pollution climbs ever higher.

Most of us, however, are quite content to ignore this obnoxious subject and leave it to the “professionals”. Indians may starve, ice-caps may melt and sea-birds drop out of the sky with mercuric convulsions but after all, everyone’s got their own problems, haven’t they? Besides, who wants to know about the DDT in food, the cadmium in your fags, the lead in the air and all the disgusting things in tapwater? Especially when there’s nothing you can do about it? This attitude is very common and to some extent explains why the world has the problems it does. When people begin to see a causal chain linking their own unemployment or poverty to vanishing forests and dead albatrosses, a chain leading to a common culprit, the insane and reckless profit-system, they may be less ready to bow out of all involvement.

But even if we act now to change the system it may be too late to stop serious ecological damage. Free-Enterprise, despite a few token fetters, has not only been able to waste and destroy the present in its mindless quest for the Fast Buck, it has also infected the future, perhaps for generations. Socialism will be stuck with the flesh-rotting legacies of capitalism and it will need every human resource and ingenuity to deal with them. Meanwhile, for what’s left of Nature, time is running out.

Every year, Britain dumps a total of 517,000 tons of mixed industrial/domestic waste in the surrounding seas, and the Irish Sea also enjoys 136,000 curies of radioactive caesium from Windscale alone. The Mediterranean annually swallows 430,000,000,000 tons of waste including raw sewage, detergents, oil. phenols, pesticides and heavy metals. This is quantifiable only because it is legally endorsed. There are no accurate figures for air pollutants like lead, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, and even where legal restrictions do exist they are difficult to endorse. There are no figures for land dumps in Britain either because the Department of the Environment has never bothered to make an inventory of them. The chief government research establishment into hazardous waste, at Harwell, told the House of Lords Select Committee in 1981 that it did not know how much was produced in the UK. who produced it, what it was or what they did with it. Indeed British law relies heavily on the voluntary co-operation of industry, despite the fact that in the United States, where experience has taught them less faith in business integrity, over three quarters of all indictments brought against companies are for wilfully flouting safety and anti-pollution regulations. In Britain, by contrast, a Water Authority officer who releases details of pollution by a firm in excess of its agreed limit is liable to imprisonment, while the firm may earn a small fine for the original offence. The new Control of Pollution Act, due to take full effect in 1986, dispenses with much of this obsessional secrecy. It also cuts the list of hazardous waste products requiring special disposal licence, proving that legislation has never been able to prevent illegal fly-tipping by cheap, cowboy operators and now has simply stopped trying.

The painful grind of British law towards a more open system is no guarantee that public activists are in for an easier time of it. Despite the Freedom of Information Act in America, private citizens have their work cut out bringing guilty pollutors to book. Whatever the law says, big corporations can and will exert enormous influence over protagonists and referees alike, so that contests are rarely if ever fought on equal terms.

One has only to look at the thalidomide story to demonstrate the vicious self-interest of big business, but what is especially interesting about pollution cases is the frequency with which supposedly impartial government agencies (dealing with coal-oil, agro-chemical and nuclear industrial regulations control) are exposed in squalid little cover-ups and conspiracies with the industries they are meant to monitor. After the 1978 Love Canal disaster in Niagara City — the first federal disaster in history due to chemical pollution, but assuredly not the last — the Environmental Protection Agency were found to have been turning a blind eye to the antics of the Hooker Chemical Company and to have coerced certain of its more zealous local inspectors into doing the same. Despite its policy of not rocking anyone’s boat the EPA were publicly capsized by the Carter administration and told to compile a dossier immediately on toxic waste dumps in the USA. Their shamefaced report admitted 300 dumps as immediate hazards, with up to 34,000 others likely to become so. The cost of correcting the damage was put at $46 billion. A US Congress Committee has estimated that 90 per cent of all toxic wastes in America are disposed of “unsafely” — that means on derelict land, in sewers, quarries, mineshafts and local streams. The D of E in Britain remains blasé.

However, pollution isn’t only caused by companies dumping waste, legally or otherwise. Pesticides are used extensively in agriculture, and not only do they kill flora or fauna outright, they also get into the food we eat, the soil and the water which drains from it. If farmers were at all interested in producing food for consumption. and not simply for the market, they would in most cases no more use a pesticide than they would dump or burn crops to keep prices high. Pesticides are very often more trouble than they’re worth. They may kill pest-predators, directly or by starvation, they actively immunise pests through small doses of spray drift, they kill fish, birds and mammals who accumulate concentrations of compounds through the food-chain, and they even create pests by wiping out the competition. Many compounds are persistent and non-selective, and are known to cause heart disease, nervous disorders, foetal deformities and cancer. DDT and the infamous herbicide 245-T are banned in America, though of course all their food imports remain contaminated. However, it is still lawful for US companies to manufacture banned compounds and sell them to the Third World, who naturally take whatever they can afford. In Sri Lanka alone there are 14,000 cases of pesticide poisoning every year.

All this, and we haven’t mentioned asbestos, mercury, dioxin (remember Seveso?), cyanide, acid rain, smog, oil, the carbon dioxide build-up, the ozone breakdown, sewage, lead, detergents, noise, radar, Extreme Low Frequency, ultraviolet, microwave, radiowave and nuclear radiation. There isn’t space to go into everything, but for some unparalleled examples of capitalist double-dealing, fraud, lies, cover-ups, suppressions, half- truths, intimidation and even murder you can’t do better than look at the nuclear industry.

Accidents happening to star witnesses before public enquiries are well-documented, perhaps the most famous being the case of Karen Silkwood in Oklahoma. 1975. Cover-ups involving police and government officials are legion. Naturally — there’s a lot of money at stake here and bad publicity can damage a lot of people. So when Dr. Tamplin links radiation with leukaemia in the ’60s, his funds are cut off and his report suppressed. When angry ex-GIs involved in the Smoky A-Bomb Pacific tests all try to sue Uncle Sam for their cancer leukaemia and sterility, the Department of Defense withholds medical records and denies all responsibility. When a nuclear accident in the Ural Mountains causes thirty Russian communities to “disappear”. US spy satellites don’t notice. When evidence shows that the 5 rem safety standard, on which all plant designs are based, is far too high, it is consistently buried or ignored. When Professor Karl Morgan of Oak Ridge designs a thermal breeder reactor about 270 times safer than the liquid metal fast breeder system to which the US government is already committed, his research is stopped and his report “altered”, and when Karen Silkwood compiles a dossier proving that Kerr-McGee Corporation technicians are being told to draw over the x-ray negatives of cracked fuel rods with black felt pen so they can be passed as safe, she is mysteriously killed in a convenient car-crash. While productive forces remain contingent on the demands of the money-market, and while fluctuating economies force producers to cut corners, pollution, along with all these other complaints, must be inevitable. Sometimes governments may try to tame free enterprise in order to get rid of the bad bits. But to suggest, as many still do, notably the Ecology Party, that one can prevent pollution by legislative and other reformist measures, is to fly in the face of the facts. The Ecology Party’s proposals for reducing pollution and reorganising capitalism along healthy, ecological lines are all the more pathetic in their miserable recognition of their own inadequacy. They seek to “form solutions in the light of the problems’’ and go on to describe how chemical corporations must stop producing their best-selling pesticides and just accept up to a 50 per cent cut in profits, how Western governments in a fit of altruism should subsidise an eightfold increase in the cost of the Third World’s malaria control programme and how the Third World itself should stop using inorganic fertilisers, organochlorinc compounds like DDT, Dieldrin and 245-T, and high-yield grain hybrids and simply accept a possible tenfold cut in yield. Well-researched though they are, these solutions are unworkable because they do not face up to the real cause of the problem. No matter what cures are proposed, if they do not take into account the basic, cut-throat nature of capitalism, they are doomed to failure. Only by changing the social and economic system which generates the conditions which cause starvation, resource-squandering and pollution will we ever see an end of such despoliation and such ecological insanity.

P J Shannon


Cover Up: Nicholas Hildyard (New English Library. London 1981). Friends of the Earth Guide to Pollution: Brian Price (Friends of the Earth, London 1983). A Blueprint for Survival: E. Goldsmith et. al. (Tom Stacey, London 1972). Can Britain Survive?: E. Goldsmith (Tom Stacey. London 1971). This Dirty World: R. C. Denney (Thomas Nelson, London 1971). Man’s Responsibility for Nature: John Passmore (Duckworth 1974) esp. Chs 3-6 inc.