1980s >> 1988 >> no-1012-december-1988

Profit and Loss

Coughs and dirty washing in Southport; burning oil rigs and polluted rivers; filthy beaches; the burning down of Old Lisbon; floods in Bangladesh and Sudan. They are all part of the world we live in. but what else do they have in common?

The answer is that each of them need not have happened. They are not “Acts of God” – natural phenomena which cannot be prevented. Although claims that even hurricanes are man-made cannot yet be substantiated to most people’s satisfaction, there is no doubt about these disasters. In a world where the aim is the satisfaction of human need rather than short-term profit, the question would not even arise.

The Coal Board have an old coking plant in Southport which emits noxious gases and fumes. The manager of the unit, when interviewed on Radio 4. said “Coking is a dirty business; if people round here want the jobs, they have to put up with it”. He did not add that modern plants cope efficiently, with minimal emissions. If profit can be made from out-of-date installations, why waste money by putting up an environmentally safe new plant?

There are laws governing the discharge of noxious materials into rivers and the sea. as there are governing the safety of workers on oil rigs. These are more honoured in the breach than the observance. Questions are currently being asked about Safety Inspectors’ reports on Piper Alpha and Ocean Odyssey — in one case these appear to have been ignored, and in the other an “All clear” was given that should not have been. One of the worst river polluters, the Electricity Board, is too big to be brought into line. Enforcement Officers state that the Board has now promised to clean up its act within five years. When challenged about excessive pollution which, it is claimed, has been going on for ten years or more, they admit this is so but the Board claim it is too expensive to fall in line. Taking the Board to Court resulted in derisory maximum fines which did not deter them from carrying on as before.

When the Marqués de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake of 1766, he had very advanced ideas for his time. He insisted the main timbers of the houses be sunk into the water table to keep them permanently moist and thus prevent fires from taking hold and spreading. When the (monstrously ugly) new shopping centre was built a few years ago, warnings that this would lower the water table were ignored. Timbers dried out and when, earlier this year, a fire did start in part of the old town, it spread at speed through the dried out timbers.

It is generally admitted that both in Bangladesh and Sudan the cutting down of rain forests to sell the timber, and the consequent soil erosion, was responsible for the flooding and loss of life and meagre possessions suffered by many were already among the world’s most deprived. Pictures of utter misery evoked the usual response of donations from workers, pensioners and children which, however generous, cannot get anywhere near to repairing the damage. How many watching or reading these real life horror stores stopped to think that to these emaciated, often ragged men, women and children with their bony arms, hollow chests and matchstick legs, the floods were only the latest of the sufferings and deprivations they have known all their lives?

The conclusions are clear to those who care to think. Wherever and whenever decisions on environment, health, comfort or even the lives of the many have to be made against the immediate profit of the few, considerations of the former will amount to no more than lip service. Unless it is shown that environmental hooliganism adversely affects the profits of the “Big Boys”, we need not look for meaningful changes in attitude and action while capitalism remains.

Eva Goodman