Monday, December 6, 2010

Environmentalism Part 2 of 2: Non- Carbon Pollution

When I began researching for this two-part post, I initially wanted to do more than two. My first thought was to divide pollutants into the three classic phases of matter: solids, liquids and gases. There’s actually four phases of matter, but I think we’re safe from plasma state pollutants… at least, until we start shooting our garbage into the sun.

The problem is, there’s more research in gas pollutants than solids and liquids, combined. In fact, I found that carbon-based gases got so much attention, they warranted their own analysis. What’s more, carbon-based pollution was also viewed with the most skepticism among Americans, and I found myself spending too much time writing about why it’s real and why you should care.

Since you, whoever you are, would never change your opinion on it based on what I say, I decided to essentially divide my posts into two based on the criteria of controversial versus non-controversial, and to spend my time with the controversial pollution (carbon) discussing how difficult it was to tackle, not trying to change your mind.

I didn’t even go back to look at or respond to comments on the post, and that’s largely because I don’t care what the average person thinks about it. I decided to base my own opinions on what experts who study it for decades find, not the politically motivated bias of assholes who think it’s all a conspiracy against… whoever it is that people think is behind the nefarious plot to maintain a livable environment.

For some reason, if I tell you chemical X is being dumped in our water, everyone is okay with opposing it. It doesn’t matter what that chemical is or what danger it poses to human beings or animals, people seem to be okay with getting behind the idea of stopping an esoteric sounding substance.

It’s hard to say why this is. It’s likely due to decades of experience with the consequences of this form of pollution. Also, most people are willing to be suspicious of something they aren’t sure about. You and I breathe out (and in) carbon dioxide, so that can’t be scary… but alkylbenzenesulfonates and ethoxylates sound downright frightening… the fact that they are hard to pronounce for the layman perhaps makes them seem foreign, and therefore dangerous. It’s the chemical equivalent to being named, “Yusef al-Zawahari.”

However, if I told you those are chemicals in detergents, it seems less threatening, because people don’t run to wash their hands off if they get Tide on them. Still, this doesn’t make them any less dangerous for the environment.

Also, unlike the effects of carbon pollution, the effects of other pollutants are immediate and infamous. I’m sure most of you have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous collection of floating debris trapped in the North Pacific Gyre (an area with a circular current). It’s larger than the size of Texas, and some have estimated it is larger than the continental United States. It has a sibling in the North Atlantic that is about a thousand miles in diameter, and another that was recently discovered in the Indian Ocean.

There’s also something offensive to the senses of most non-carbon pollution. Solid waste is gross and offends the eyes, liquid soluble waste in our water taints the taste, and gas pollutants often smell awful. The problem is, this does not translate well to the reality of which pollution is worse.

I remember on the first day in my Environmental Law class, our professor asked us which we would rather breathe if we had to choose between the nearly clear and less pungent exhaust of a car or the black smoke coming from a diesel truck. Everyone said the regular car exhaust, but the truth is you would die breathing in car exhaust much more quickly than diesel exhaust, which lacks carbon monoxide. You might get coal lung from the carbon particulate in the diesel smoke, but it’s far less deadly.

In short, it’s easy to let your “common sense” get the better of you when it comes to how pollution interacts with the human body.

Another problem with my initial research into pollution is that a lot of pollution simply isn’t categorized as a solid, liquid or gas. For example, thermal pollution occurs when a factory or power plant uses a nearby body of water for cooling hot parts. Water has quite the cooling potential, but it gets warmer after being used. The average temperature of these bodies of water go up, often killing the life which evolved over millions of years to thrive in the original environment.

In these cases, nothing is being physically added to the water, and yet it has deadly consequences for the wildlife. There are simply countless ways in which humans have altered the environment, forcing other animals and plants to adapt or die.

How would you classify slash-and-burn agriculture, one of humanity’s oldest practices? Maybe this is the “plasma pollution” I had said didn’t exist, since fire is in its plasma state. Humans have set forests ablaze for the purpose of clearing them for agricultural use since before recorded history. It wouldn’t be a problem, except we often have no idea what we’re burning.

But who cares about animals and plants?

Nearly every form of medicine we have is directly derived from some other living thing. In fact, I have a fair amount of pharmaceutical education, and the only medications that I am aware of that are not found in natural biology are lithium citrate (a mood stabilizer) and nitroglycerin (used for treating angina… and blowing stuff up).

Every single living thing on Earth is like a billion year old chemistry experiment waiting to be analyzed. Each species has developed ways of dealing with problems, and humans beings are often faced with these same problems. Mold, for example, developed a method for fending off bacteria, and we use mold’s chemistry to create antibiotics.

I am always amazed by the paradox I face when talking to conservatives about this particular issue. These same people who deny evolution seem to take a “survival of the fittest” stance when it comes to human interaction with the environment. If some little bird can’t survive because of our actions, then clearly it was just their time to go, because they can’t adapt.

This wouldn’t bother me, either, if it weren’t for the fact that such a tiny bird may have evolved to produce the chemicals necessary for curing a disease that kills millions of people. We have a vested interest in maintaining biodiversity, not only because it provides a healthy ecosystem for humans to live in (we couldn’t survive without other living things), but because a plant or animal going extinct is tantamount to burning a book which we only have one copy of.

Despite the compelling evidence for self-interest in environmentalism, there is one group that doesn’t care very much about medicine or mankind’s future on Earth. If you are having trouble guessing who it is… pray on it for a bit, I’m sure it’ll come to you.

Not all Christians are opposed to environmentalism, though there are some fundamentalists who literally believe humans cannot wreck the Earth because it says in the Bible that man won’t destroy the Earth. Others point to God’s promise to never flood the Earth again as proof.

Because scientists don’t know shit compared to your God’s promise to a 600 year old guy who collected two of every animal (including 2,900 species of snakes… or 2,899 if you don’t count politicians).

There are literally thousands of forms of non-carbon pollution, and to deal with them will take a dedicated effort. But at this point, I ask you to consider: why is pollution a problem?

Pollution is something called an “externality.”

Externality: a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices, incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit
Externalities are one of the primary reasons government is necessary in a modern economy. No factory would institute expensive pollution controls for the safety of those living nearby unless forced to do so. I suppose citizens could grab their guns and storm the place… but part of the benefit of having a functioning government which represents the interests of the citizenry is that citizens aren’t forced to take every matter into their own hands.

We should be able to just live our lives. We shouldn’t have to be inconvenienced with having to fight for environmentalism. The fact that we find ourselves having to do so derives directly from the fact that politicians are in the pocket of the very people who are poisoning us in the interest of the bottom line.

In a way, supporting a separation between industry and politicians is not only a great idea, it’s environmental.


  1. but because a plant or animal going extinct is tantamount to burning a book which we only have one copy of.

    Yes, but 90% or more of all species that have ever existed on the planet have already gone extinct (without the help of humanity), and if the dinosaurs hadn't disappeared, you and I wouldn't be here today. Though you probably wouldn't see that as much of a tragedy, being as anti-human as you are, and considering your previously expressed view that the human race is nothing special anyway.

  2. You got that out of what I wrote, huh? Talk about "special..."

  3. Just so I understand... because extinction has happened before, we shouldn't care about the research potential of extant biology? And you're still butt-hurt about me pointing out we're just animals, not God-touched dirt which life breathed into us... seriously?

  4. Ayn Rand didn't believe in God, and yet did believe that humans were special and apart from all other animals, so I don't know what you mean by God-touched. Since when do you have to be a theist to acknowledge the obvious fact that the human species is the only one with language that allows the formation of concepts and therefore the use of higher reasoning?

  5. Ayn Rand didn't believe in God, and yet did believe that humans were special and apart from all other animals

    Ayn Rand worshipped humanity, especially the cult of self. I wouldn't be shocked if she maintained the same Christian idea that humans have dominion over all the world, and that it's all here just for us.

    Humans are pretty special... we are the only species, after all, that can believe our own lies.


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