December 11, 2017

False perspective

Book review: A Perspective of Environmental Pollution, by Martin W. Holdgate. Cambridge University Press.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 9 No. 8–9, November–December 1979.


This is a very thorough look at environmental pollution in all its various aspects. Dr Holdgate was director of the Central Unit on Environmental Pollution in the Department of the Environment and also director of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. He has had a chance to consider these problems for a long time and has had access to a lot of information and the book is in fact very highly documented, as one would expect.

It is also, however, an establishment study. As a government expert, Dr. Holdgate has had to toe the Government line on most pollution issues and the Government line, as we all know, is that pollution is a minor problem and one which is now completely under control. One is therefore pleasantly surprised to see that he is willing to face a lot of unpleasant aspects of this question, which many people in his position would not have the courage to do.

Thus he readily admits that nitrate levels in important British rivers such as the Thames and the Lea are continuing to increase. He also admits that the extensive surveys of rivers conducted by the DOE, which have been used to justify the thesis that our rivers are getting cleaner, are very misleading; firstly because they only measure the rivers’ oxygen content and take no account of industrial pollutants and secondly because

“the worst-polluted river reaches tend to be those lowest down, and these are the reaches where the volume of flow is greatest and the largest bankside towns and cities are sited. . . Were the statistics arranged in terms of volume, or of human exposure, they would therefore look less encouraging.”

He also agrees that estuaries tend to be in a bad way, with limpets from the Bristol Channel occasionally containing 80 ppm of cadmium. He accepts, too, that pollution control technology is not always very effective. In the cement industry for instance:

“Electrostatic precipitators can be designed to give 99.5% efficiency in stopping fine dust, but such devices do not give their full design performance throughout the year, and even when they do, the residual 0.5% can represent a large tonnage of dust, much of which falls in the immediate neighbourhood.”

He also admits that DDT could affect photosynthesis in plankton floating on the surface layers of the sea which if it were so “would obviously be a major threat both to oceanic ecosystems and to global oxygen and carbon cycles”. But then he states that the solubility of DDT in water “is so low that the concentrations needed for such an effect are most unlikely to be attained”. Clearly he has not read the SCEP report very carefully, for it shows that DDT is about 10,000 times more soluble in oil than it is in water, which is very worrying indeed in view of the ever greater levels of oil pollution that our seas are subjected to.

More serious than this is his astonishing statement that there are no substances that in themselves are pollutants and that it depends entirely where they are deposited. This is true in the case of the natural substances – those that can be recycled into living systems – but is clearly not true of synthetic organics or ‘xenobiotic’ substances, as Professor Kuenen refers to them, of which living systems on this planet have had no evolutionary experience and into which they cannot be recycled. These are pollutants wherever they might be deposited.

He admits that “there remains a suspicion that such substances might have unforeseen effects on living creatures over longer periods of exposure than we can possibly test for”, but that is as far as he goes. He refuses to face the real implications of releasing such substances in ever greater quantities into the natural environment.

Still more serious is his refusal to face the fact that the increased chemicalisation of our environment is leading to an increased rate of cancer.

“Trends in cancer provide no evidence of an upsurge that might be related to the increase in the amount and diversity of chemicals emitted to the environment over the past fifty years.”

It is true there has been a fall in the incidence of cancer of the cervix and of the stomach, as industrialisation has proceeded, but this has been more than compensated for by the increase in breast cancer, cancer of the colon and cancers of the respiratory tract. Indeed, the total incidence of cancers is increasing at more than two percent per annum.

He makes further efforts to under-play the contribution of man’s industrial activities to the present pollution problems by pointing to the natural poisons that were present in our environment long before industrialisation occurred. Rhubarb is rich in oxalates; cassava contains cyanide. How often have we heard this refrain. This argument of course does not take into account the fact that traditional societies learn how to deal with the poisons with which they have co-evolved, their dietary patterns reflect this learning process.

The pollution problem as a whole he views optimistically and informs us that serious studies on the subject such as the SCEP report are equally optimistic. This again is an error of fact. I quote the conclusion of the celebrated SCEP report.

“The risk is very great that we shall overshoot in our environmental demands as some ecologists claim we have already done, leading to cumulative collapse of our civilisation. It seems obvious that before the end of the century we must accomplish basic changes in our relations with ourselves and with nature. If this is to be done, we must begin now. A change system with a time lag of ten years can be disastrously ineffectual in a growth system that doubles in less than fifteen years.”

It is difficult to see how this can be regarded as optimistic. Not surprisingly, it is only ‘popular’ studies such as The Limits to Growth and Paul Ehrlich’s Population and Resource Environment that he takes to be pessimistic.

On what considerations, we might ask, does he base his optimism? On precious little. It is in fact largely wishful thinking. He admits that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for instance, is likely to cause climatic changes, but these he does not consider will be all that serious. Why not? He does not tell us.

In general, he considers that pollution levels are falling rather than rising. The two exceptions being nitrates in fresh water and PCB (poly-chlorinated biphenyl) residues in birds. Again this is simply not true. As I have shown in my essay in this same edition of The Ecologist, “Can pollution be controlled?”, claims that pollution levels are falling in this country are totally misleading.

This myth can only be maintained by applying the wrong criteria, judging air pollution in our cities in terms of the smoke released there; judging river pollution in terms of BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand); judging SO2 (sulphur dioxide) pollution on a purely local basis, without taking into account the damage it is doing in the areas to which we are exporting it.

In general he grossly over-estimates the effectiveness of pollution controls. Thus he states that PCBs are now used in such a way that they do very little harm. We know that Monsanto only sells PCBs to people who assure them that they are being used in closed systems; but such assurances are quite clearly false as PCB levels continue to increase in the marine environment.

Dr. Holdgate also shows little concern with storage of high level radioactive wastes. His statement that “there is ample safe storage space” is demonstrably false. Nuclear power stations in this country consign their wastes to Windscale. One of the main arguments used by BNFL, at the Windscale Inquiry, for the extension of their re-treatment facilities was that this was urgently required for the purpose of getting rid of high level wastes which were accumulating at Windscale in ever more precarious conditions. This is also the argument being used to find a final resting place for these wastes, from which they cannot leach into the surrounding environment. We know, and he knows too, that such a place does not exist.

In his chapter on standards and objectives, he enters a somewhat different field: that of “social value judgements”. We find here the establishment scientist’s bias against any interpretation of data. Science does not judge the fixing of standards, this he regards as a “social value judgement”. What is needed, he tells us, is to balance

“scientifically determined hazard of a contaminant level, the popular desire for the cleanest possible world, and the cost of attaining it, including the possible restrictions on industry, farming or individual freedom: it is clear that the environmental quality standards inherent in this second approach are not statements about the resilience of environmental systems or targets.”

This is only true if biological or ecological resilience are things that can be determined clinically. As I have pointed out in “Can pollution be controlled?”, organisms and ecosystems can be seriously damaged by being exposed to sub-lethal levels of different pollutants, though no clinical symptoms may appear, nothing in fact that our scientists can measure very easily in a laboratory. However their health and resilience is so much impaired that they can succumb to environmental challenge which in normal conditions they could easily survive. From this consideration it must follow that all environmental pollution is damaging, as is any change that causes the environment to diverge from that to which an organism has been adapted by its evolution.

This is not a “social value judgement”. If science is to consist of anything more than the establishment of naive correlations on the basis of blind and unrelated measurements carried out in the totally artificial conditions of a laboratory – if in fact, it is to be, as its adepts maintain it is, the only serious tool for understanding the world in which we live – then it is very much a scientific judgement those that our scientists are accustomed to making.

To conclude, at the second International Conference on the Environmental Future held in Reykjavik in 1977, Professor Reid Bryson stated that the most serious problem we must face today is not the blindness of politicians but the fact that they are incapable of obtaining a single clear signal from the scientific community. The signals are all confused and contradictory. As a result they have not yet really been made aware of the seriousness of the environmental problems that confront us.

What then, we might ask, is the signal that emerges from this study? With a few minor reservations, it is that, to use the consecrated jargon, ‘there is no cause for concern'; everything is more or less under control; and without making any additional efforts or incurring any further expenditure we should, as usual, be able to muddle through. In view of the truly horrific consequences of the inaction thereby condoned, a more criminally irresponsible signal is difficult to imagine.

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