Is Pollution an Inevitable Consequence of Contemporary Society?

Searching for images of “pollution” feels like being guilt-punched by reality. Thick toxic fumes rising from monumental factory chimneys, acidic green rivers with a slurpy consistency and animals bathing in a sea of trash are all secondary effects of progress. Is pollution really an inevitable consequence of contemporary society? Strictly speaking, a degree of pollution is inevitable simply because no process is 100% efficient and technology to capture and reuse 100% of the waste produced does not yet exist. The question becomes whether pollution is inevitable at the levels observed in the recent decades. While technological advancements play a crucial role in reducing pollution, impactful progress in this endeavour might not be possible unless we fundamentally change the way the economy handles waste production.

Environmental pollution is not a recent issue that only our generation has to face. Although its scale and variety has increased with the development of new technologies, pollution has always been present throughout human history. This has led to the creation of products that form an integral part of modern society [1]. In 1997, paper, plastics, chemical, and metal industries in the USA were responsible for 71% of its total toxic emissions [2]. Clean and safe energy is still a problem despite the fact that we have progressed from the use of coal as our main energy resource [1, 2]. Fortunately, new technologies and environmental regulations have helped to stabilise or even bring down certain kinds of pollution [3, 4] (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Amount of toxic air pollutants in the air. Source: US EPA 2007 [1]

Figure 1: Amount of toxic air pollutants in the air. Source: US EPA 2007 [1]

However, scientists have not been able to eliminate pollution entirely because waste production is an intrinsic feature of the modern consumer society.

Our society is addicted to infinite production and growth, which is why pollution is also a systemic problem. The foundations of our economy are growth, profit and consumption, making resource preservation a secondary priority. Capitalism, the economic system which almost all countries in the world have adopted, is the means by which resources are distributed. The main arguments stating that solutions to environmental problems are contained within capitalism have been difficult to prove in practice [5]. It is difficult to think about long-term environmental issues within the framework of prices and commodities, “Since the environment (that is, the biosphere) is not a commodity” [6]. Capitalism does not recognise the importance of long-term issues such as pollution [4], and its approach to waste reduction is ambiguous. Improving efficiency through energy and material savings is a business interest due to profit maximisation. On the other hand, reducing aggregate consumption is not, which is why any increase in efficiency has been offset by the expansion in economic scale [5] and could not prevent the increase of various kinds of pollution. The more products are bought and the more waste is thereby generated, the higher the GDP [7].  Moreover, removing produced waste is an additional cost for business production.

It does not make sense to keep GDP as the holy grail of indicators at the centre of our economy. Taking aside the fact that it was developed as a temporary measure for post-war reparations, it does not take into account ecological harm or human psychosocial wellbeing. The adoption of another measure as the main economic indicator, for instance the Happy Planet Index, would be an important first step towards real progress. Having a system which encourages consumption on a planet with finite resources is not a very environmentally sustainable strategy. Furthermore, the principle of profit being the incentive for every action has affected sustainability approaches. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and polluted Antarctic shores [1, 3] are consequences of waste disposal in the ocean, as it is cheaper than doing it by other means. In spite of CO2’s environmental impact, it seems nothing radical can be done with reducing emissions as it would have an adverse economic impact, which explains the Kyoto protocol’s, the well-known intergovernmental emissions treaty, inability to fully address the issue [5]. The absence of a radical shift from fossil-fuel powered vehicles on the part of industries can be attributed to the priority of financial gains from fossil fuel consumption over its long-term effects [5]. Carr argues that it only takes improved technology to solve the presumable conflict between economic growth and pollution. While this is true, the implementation of such extremely efficient technology would have to be profitable in the first place in order to be introduced.

The overall pollution caused by exploiting new technologies was amplified by the rise of the consumer culture. Consumerism, being ‘based on the endless creation of goods for purchase’ [8] and involving the usage and disposal of vast amounts of products on a daily basis, makes creation of waste inevitable. It goes as far as creating new wants and desires through advertising and marketing [4]. The consumer phenomenon only started in the 17th century and with increased mass production grew the total amount of waste, which subsequently affected pollution levels. For instance, the rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles in Asia resulting from the growth of purchasing power [2] considerably affected urban pollution. Almost all of the popular instantly consumable products are packaged for convenience, forcing us to cope with even more waste. For comfort and practical purposes, drinks, even pure drinking water, are often stored in aluminium cans or plastic bottles. Aluminium production requires vast amounts of energy; John Young reported in 1992 that as much as the energy of the entire continent of Africa was used solely by the aluminium industry [9]. Data from 2010 shows that packaging waste in the US accounted for over 30% of municipal solid waste [10].

Even though stabilising population levels will not decrease pollution, population growth is another factor that has contributed to it. It has multiplied the consumerism effect and also presents an agricultural challenge. Feeding today’s large population requires extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers for longer growing seasons and more crops. The use of chemical fertilisers causes eutrophication – dangerous excess of nutrients – of water sources, which causes dense growth of plant life, consequently resulting in the decrease of oxygen in the water, which has an adverse effect on fish populations. Intensification of agriculture caused further land degradation in many regions, for example in Western China [2]. Regarding population growth within modern society, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London (1992) [11] stated that:

“If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.”

However, if pollution levels are to be reduced, more than controlling population growth will be needed, since an average person generates much more waste than several decades ago [10] (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Municipal solid waste generation 1960-2010. Source: US EPA 2010 [2]

Figure 2: Municipal solid waste generation 1960-2010. Source: US EPA 2010 [2]

Without changing our way of living and without an innovative economic systemic change, not even the present population is environmentally sustainable [3]. For now, it seems people are too scared to think of a systemic-level change and too careless to make anything major happen. The nature of such long-term problems as pollution, however, is that once they become too big to ignore, it will be too late.

References:

  1. Markham, A. (1994) A brief history of pollution, London : Earthscan.
  2. Carr, M. (1997: 75) New patterns: process and change in human geography, Walton-on-Thames : Nelson.
  3. Hill, M.K. (2010) Understanding environmental pollution, 3rd edition, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  4. Gertler, N., and Ehrenfeld, J.R. (1996) ‘A down-to-earth approach to clean production’, Technology Review, Feb/Mar, 1996, 50-54 as referenced in Hill (2010: 51).
  5. Foster, J. B. (2002) Ecology Against Capitalism, New York : Monthly Review Press.
  6. Foster, J. B. (2002: 27) Ecology Against Capitalism, New York : Monthly Review Press.
  7. Falasca-Zamponi, S. (2011) Waste and consumption: capitalism, the environment, and the life of things, New York, N.Y. ; London : Routledge.
  8. Falasca-Zamponi, S. (2011: 14) Waste and consumption: capitalism, the environment, and the life of things, New York, N.Y. ; London : Routledge.
  9. Young, J. (1992) ‘Aluminium’s Real Tab’, in Worldwatch, 5 (2), March 1992, as referenced in Markham (1994: 86).
  10. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2010), ‘Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010’,
  11. United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London (1992) Joint Statement, as referenced in Hill (2010: 26).

Image credits:

  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2007), ‘Air Quality and Emissions – Progress Continues in 2006’, as referenced in Schwartz, J. (2007) ‘Future Air Pollution Levels and Climate Change: A Step Toward Realism’, World Climate Report
  2. United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London (1992) Joint Statement, as referenced in Hill (2010: 26).

Peter Vaník is a final year Geography and Politics student at the University of Glasgow who would like to see more immediate effort put into solving long-term problems.

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