October 23, 2017

The costs of modernization

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This essay is the introduction to Green Britain or Industrial Wasteland?, a collection of essays edited by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard, published in 1986 by Polity Press, Cambridge.

Several themes run through the essays in this book. The first is that there is a direct, historical link between the increasingly serious environmental problems we are experiencing today and the ‘modernisation’ of our economic activities.

Such modernisation – be it in the field of forestry, agriculture, fishing, food processing, manufacturing or power generation – inevitably sets in train a series of closely related changes with profound social, economic and ecological implications. Activities (bread-making, for example) which were previously a vocation or a way of life have become industrial undertakings. Rather than being carried out at the domestic level, or as small family businesses, they are now carried out by giant commercial concerns. The scale of operations increases correspondingly; the use of natural products gradually gives way to that of synthetics; and increasingly sophisticated machines take over more and more of the functions previously fulfilled by human labour.

Alongside these changes, there has been a critical shift in our attitude towards the management of our resources and the running of our economy. The accent is now on the short term, with little or no thought being shown for the future. The achievement of economic efficiency (with the aim of maximising short-term gains) has seemingly become the be-all and end-all of human endeavour. All other considerations have been ruthlessly subordinated to that one overriding goal.

No matter if a new ‘development’ destroys an ancient monument, flattens the historic centre of a town, or uproots a local community. No matter if our countryside is torn apart by bulldozers, or if the country’s wildlife is steadily deprived of habitats in which to survive. No matter if the quality of the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink is eroded through pollution or if our health is undermined as a result. Such considerations are simply brushed aside as the inevitable price we must pay for economic efficiency.

Forestry and farming

The effects of ‘modernisation’ are evident in the field of forestry. The Forestry Commission operates on a large scale, using machinery and methods that are entirely geared to the achievement of short-term results. There is no concern for the environmental costs. Vast spraying programmes are regularly undertaken using pesticides known to be health hazards. Ugly conifer monocultures are planted on unsuitable lowland soils which, as Colin Price, Christine Cahalan and Don Harding note, can “cause podzolization, a process which results in the acidification of soils”, in addition to giving rise to “nitrogen deficiencies”. [1] Clear cutting also leads to erosion, especially on slopes.

For these and other reasons, modern forestry cannot last for long. Indeed, the experience in Czechoslovakia suggests that growing seven generations of conifers on sandy soil leads to such environmental degradation that the soil is no longer capable of supporting commercial forestry. [2]

Robert Waller also notes how in farming, efficiency has become the catchword. “Farming is a business now not a way of life” has become “the slogan nailed to the masthead of the ministry”. [3] Farms have grown bigger and bigger, putting the traditional small farmer out of business and destroying the very fabric of rural society. Ever more expensive equipment has been introduced with the result that debts have skyrocketed bringing many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy.

At the same time, sound husbandry has been replaced by chemical farming, [4] our countryside has been ruthlessly destroyed to provide more and more agricultural land and ever bigger fields, [5] and our wildlife has been all but exterminated. Our best soils are suffering from accelerating erosion, [6] our groundwaters are increasingly polluted with nitrates (the result of fertiliser use) and our rivers with pesticides. Inevitably, our drinking water, [7] and our food, is increasingly contaminated – the latter with antibiotics and hormones, [8] in addition to nitrates, [9] and pesticide residues. [10]

Can we seriously regard such environmental costs as an acceptable price to pay for having a modern agricultural industry? Unquestionably not. As Robert Waller asks,

“Surely the ‘business of farming’ includes the conservation of the environment? How can it be healthy ‘business’ if it erodes the soil, contaminates our waterways and our groundwater and even the food it produces?” [11]

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Fishing

The fishing industry is another industry which has caused widespread ecological damage as a result of modernisation. In order to increase economic efficiency, we have introduced massive trawlers, equipped with the latest capital-intensive technology, that can harvest vast quantities of fish in a very short dine. Fish catches have increased dramatically as a result, but at what cost and for how long?

As David Harris notes, small fishermen using traditional methods have been put out of business; fishing communities have been disrupted; and overfishing has brought the herring “to the verge of commercial extinction. [12] Now, says Harris, “it is the turn of the mackerel”. In the future, other species are also likely to be fished into extinction. Indeed, “nearly all species within easy reach are under intense pressure”.

Once the fish stocks are gone, the big trawler owners will in turn go out of business, as is already beginning to happen, leaving a new breed of untutored and possibly part-time fishermen to eke out a marginal livelihood from our polluted and depleted seas.

Even now that it is readily apparent that the fishing industry is rushing headlong towards destruction, the authorities are doing next to nothing to halt (let alone reverse) these disastrous trends. On the contrary, government policy actually militates against the conservation of fish stocks.

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Food processing

In the last 30 years, we have seen the development of the modern, capital-intensive, science-based food-processing industry which now churns out 75 percent of the food we eat. According to Erik Millstone, some 3,500 or more additives are now used “in millions of combinations” to make this industry economically efficient. [13]

As a result, the average Briton eats four kilogrammes a year of a mixture of some 3,500 different chemical additives, most of which have never been tested for possible health effects. Yet, as Alan Irwin and Doogie Russell imply, such additives must make a significant (though as yet unquantified) contribution to the incidence of cancer in this country – a disease which may already be killing as many as 150,000 Britons a year. [14]

The food-processing industry argues that additives are essential if the price of food is to be kept down. In reality, however, many additives are used to transform fresh food which would otherwise be sold relatively cheaply into packaged foods which, with sufficient publicity, can be sold at a much higher price – even though they are laced with synthetic chemicals and thoroughly devitalised.

Potato crisps (which, today, play an important part in the diet of most of our children) are a case in point.

“When we spend 13p to buy a packet of crisps, we are buying 1p’s worth of potatoes which have been peeled, sliced, fried, flavoured, preserved, packaged, distributed and advertised into a highly profitable product, instead of a simple but relatively unprofitable spud.” [15]

Such products cannot provide us with a sound and healthy diet. Thankfully, however, the food-processing industry is unlikely to survive in its present form for very much longer. Already consumer pressure is forcing manufacturers to change their ways:

  • In January 1985, Sainsbury’s began to eliminate additives from their own-brand goods: as from March 1986, shoppers have been able to identify which products contain additives and (perhaps more important) which do not, through a system of colour coding introduced by the company.
  • Birds Eye has also announced that it intends to eliminate “all artificial colours” (including tartrazine, the yellow dye suspected of causing hyperactivity in children) from all of its products. The company has also promised a reduction in the number of other additives it uses.
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The electricity supply industry

Over the last decade we have also witnessed the modernisation of the electricity supply industry – and, in particular, the substitution of nuclear for coal and oil-fired power stations.

The insidious pollution to which nuclear power gives rise is well described by Peter Bunyard, who also examines the likely effects of Britain’s nuclear programme on our health. [16] Britain’s reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria is particularly polluting. As Nick Gallie notes in his contribution, the plant, which is owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), routinely releases “two million gallons of radioactive waste-contaminated water directly into the Irish Sea every day. It has done so for over 20 years”. [17]

Accidental releases to the environment add still more radioactivity to the sea. Such accidents occur with monotonous regularity. In February 1986 alone, there were four major accidents, one of which released half a tonne of reprocessed uranium into the Irish Sea.

The extent to which the Irish Sea is now contaminated and the effects of radioactive pollution from Sellafield are now coming to light, with clusters of childhood leukaemias appearing in villages on the Cumbrian coast – and, indeed, on the other side of the sea in Ireland.

Is the pollution really worth while? Is it a justifiable price to pay for the cheap electricity that nuclear power is said to provide? The answer is a resounding No. The costs of generating nuclear electricity, as Peter Bunyard explains only too clearly, are incomparably higher than they are made out to be by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and Britain’s other generating boards. [18] Significantly, in the USA, the nuclear industry is almost dead. There have been no new orders for nuclear power stations for several years, while over 100 orders have been cancelled since the late 1970s.

This is not primarily because of opposition to nuclear power – though this is certainly a factor – but because they are too expensive. In the USA, power is generated by private companies which do not have a monopoly on electricity supply and which cannot afford the massive investment required for a single nuclear power station. By contrast, the CEGB is one of the largest monopolies in the world. With most electricity being generated by coal, it can afford, at this stage, to divert its resources to a build-up of nuclear power.

If a referendum were called tomorrow, it is likely that Britain’s nuclear industry would be phased out in the near future. [19] Of those questioned in a recent public opinion poll (conducted prior to the Chernobyl accident), 70 percent said that they thought Sellafield unsafe: 39 percent wanted the plant closed, whilst 40 percent felt it should only reprocess spent fuel from Britain’s reactors. [20] Only 17 percent of those interviewed believed ministerial assurances that the plant was safe – and a mere 11 percent wished the government to continue building nuclear plants. [21]

Despite such public disquiet over nuclear power (disquiet which the government puts down to “emotionalism” and “irrationality”) the government remains firmly committed to its nuclear programme. The reason, as Peter Bunyard makes clear, lies in the well-established (but much denied) connection between Britain’s civil nuclear programme and the maintenance of her independent nuclear deterrent. [22] Put simply, Britain needs nuclear power to generate the plutonium for atom bombs.

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Third World relations

Our relationship with the Third World is also increasingly governed by hard-nosed business considerations. Since 1980, it has been official government policy to allocate aid according to “political, industrial and commercial considerations” with the aim of “helping the poorest people in the poorest countries”. As John Tanner notes in The Times, however, “the second definition of aid seems to have been forgotten”. [23] Indeed, the government has actually reduced its aid to the people of Africa in the face of the worst famine of all time.

As John Madeley points out, this reduction in aid is intended to ensure that “there is more in the kitty for better off countries such as Turkey and Mexico”. [24] The logic is that such countries are more likely to have the cash to spend on British goods and services than the poor nations of Africa. The ‘goods and services’ that are available from Britain include pesticides whose use is often prohibited in other Western countries, armaments (of which Britain now sells £1,200 million worth a year) and even instruments of torture.

Does the British public share the cynicism of its political leaders? Judging by its overwhelming support for Bob Geldof in his efforts to raise money for real aid to the world’s starving masses, this is unlikely. Indeed John Madeley suggests:

There could yet be votes for politicians who show people that they understand why and how Britain’s relationship with the Third World does matter – why it is not in our interests that Third World people are poisoned by our chemicals, go hungry because we refuse to pay a fair price for their products and give aid to build giant white elephants, like the Mahaweli project, which can only serve to impoverish still further the poor of the Third World. [25]

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Rationalizing inaction

The second theme to emerge from this book concerns the hand-in-glove relationship that has developed between industry, politicians and the civil service. Whenever efforts have been made to impose controls, however modest, on the activities of our most polluting industries, civil servants have done their level best to water down those controls or, worse still, to stifle them at birth.

To choose an example at random: consider the support given to the highly polluting pesticide industry by successive British governments. As Chris Rose notes,

“recent research in the Kew Public Records Office by Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has revealed how early attempts to bring pesticides under a comprehensive system of legal controls in order to protect farmworkers, the public and the environment, were undermined and finally defeated by concerted lobbying from within the civil service on behalf (it would appear) of the pesticide industry. Official papers from the early 1950s show how civil servants deliberately manoeuvred and steered ‘expert’ committees away from imposing legal controls – and even rewrote and reversed their findings.” [26]

Rose goes on to comment:

“the ministry not only went out of its way to help manufacturers and commercial users of farm chemicals to fend off controls over their use, it also played a considerable role in undermining controls over the sale of pesticides in shops.”

It is worth considering some of the expedients resorted to by government, industry and the civil service to prevent the imposition of controls not only over the use of pesticides but over other destructive activities.

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A question of evidence

The most obvious expedient is to insist that there is no ‘scientific evidence’ that a particular product or activity is in fact harmful, and hence no need to control it. Most people generally accept such an assurance at its face value, especially if it is provided by a well-known and highly qualified scientist. Few realise that such an assurance is often only true because no one has ever bothered to look for the evidence – in other words, there is ‘no evidence’ because the necessary research has never been undertaken to find it.

The point is made by Erik Millstone with regard to food additives.

“When industry says that there is no evidence of any chronic hazards from additives, this does not mean that it has looked for such hazards.” [27]

The truth is that there has been very little research into the effects of food additives on our health.

Nor for that matter has there been much research on the environmental effects of agricultural chemicals. As Harry Walters recently noted in an article in The Ecologist, agricultural research in Britain has been “concentrated on the most cost-effective ways of using the new machines, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides”; environmental research has been “virtually ignored and has remained neglected to this day”. [28]

The fact that the environmental effects of the majority of chemicals have never been examined has not prevented successive British governments from encouraging their use. Thus the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS) has encouraged the use of more and more nitrate fertilisers, though it has never conducted “any research on the quality of food produced or on the health of those who eat it”.

Chris Rose notes that

“the complete absence of figures for the amounts of different pesticides used on farms makes the detailed study of pesticide related cancers, nervous disorders, or other potential effects extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

In addition,

“baseline environmental monitoring has been studiously ignored or even reduced, so ministers can safely reply that there is ‘no evidence’ of problems.”

Nor does the government have much idea of the extent to which drinking water is contaminated since “data on pesticides detected in rivers and groundwater are not held centrally”. [29]

Worse still, as David Wheeler of the University of Surrey points out, Britain’s water authorities have been specifically asked by the Department of the Environment “under direct instructions from ministers. . . effectively to ignore contamination of the public water supplies by pesticides”. [30] It would clearly be an embarrassment for the public to know the extent to which its drinking water is contaminated with such poisons.

Even when environmental research is undertaken, it is often carried out with the apparent aim of justifying the continued use of a chemical or the continuation of a given policy. In 1982, for example, Sir Derek (now Lord) Rayner was appointed to conduct an audit of research undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Commenting on the need to continue monitoring the biological effects of dumping waste at sea, Rayner [31] listed the three reasons why such monitoring should be carried out:

  1. Because the (Oslo and London) Conventions require it;
  2. As a check on paper predictions of the effects of dumping;
  3. In order to demonstrate to national and international opinion that dumping is safe.

Research to demonstrate that dumping is safe? Whatever happened to scientific objectivity?

Another tactic is to fund research which attempts to pin the blame for environmental damage or adverse health effects on factors which are either outside our control or whose regulation does not demand any drastic changes in policy. Thus, although many eminent epidemiologists now believe that between 50 and 80 percent of human cancers are caused by exposure to radiation or to chemicals in the environment, little research is devoted to the environmental causes of cancer. Instead, the bulk of the funding goes on researching the mechanisms of carcinogenesis at the cellular level and the role that viruses play as possible causes of cancer.

Similarly, Nigel Dudley notes that according to Steve Elsworth of Friends of the Earth,

“The CEGB’s scientific research is framed so that it does not ask the question ‘what causes acid rain?’ but rather ‘what apart from sulphur oxide emissions could cause acid damage to the environment?’ ” [32]

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What is ‘scientific evidence’?

Even when sufficient data have been acquired to justify the banning of a dangerous environmental pollutant, government scientists often insist that it does not constitute ‘scientific evidence’. Thus, although the literature on the connection between nitrosamines and cancer is extensive, this does not prevent government medical advisers from declaring the link to be ‘not proven’.

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