October 23, 2017

The importance of being average

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 9 No. 8/9, November/December 1979. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


The most obvious problem involved in fixing an acceptable level of any pollutant is that susceptibility to different chemical substances varies from individual to individual, even more so from one age group to another. Individual variability is also related to domicile. People are more or less at risk according to how close they live to a source of pollution.

Of course individual susceptibility will vary even more depending on a person’s work, which may bring them into contact with pollutants of varying degrees of toxicity. Individual lifestyles are also very relevant, since obesity and alcohol intake may increase a person’s vulnerability to pollutants, while eating and drinking habits will clearly affect our exposure to the various pollutants that find their way into what we eat and drink.

In Britain, towards the end of 1970 studies began to show that fish at the top of the food chain such as tuna and swordfish, wherever they seemed to come from, were heavily contaminated with mercury. 900 million cans of tuna were taken off the market in the US because they contained more than 1 ppm of mercury. In Britain, tuna on the market was found to contain similar levels of mercury.

For a while the public was advised not to eat it, but then, as Anthony Tucker points out, our government

“contrived to rationalise a course of inaction by resorting to averages. By counting British heads and the number of cans sold a year, and by completely ignoring those who happen to like tuna and eat a lot of it, the scientific advisory committee was able to arrive at reassuring conclusions.”

If this principle were generally applied to determine permissible levels of all pollutants released into our environment, we would be safe in theory at least, so long as we do not change our habits in any way from year to year and all remain strictly ‘Mr and Mrs Average’. At the same time, if ever political, social, economic, ecological or climatic changes of any kind forced us to adopt new living, working, eating, drinking or breathing habits, we could then be exposed to dangerous levels of all sorts of pollutants that we would not have previously encountered in conforming to the authorities’ model of the average citizen.

In other words, the present system involves constantly narrowing down our options for the future and hence reducing our capacity to adapt to changing conditions; a truly suicidal prospect. If our government were really concerned about the effects of pollutants, it is not the average citizens of today that it would cater for, but all the possible average citizens of an unpredictable tomorrow. This means that we should not be catering for the average consumer of a polluted foodstuff but the maximum consumer.

There is at least one very good reason why this must be so. Even if it is possible to be Mr. Average with regard to exposure to a single pollutant, it is obviously unfeasible to be Mr. Average with regard to the 70,000 or so pollutants that we have introduced into our environment. In reality, every single person is likely to be non-average in some respects, and so to be subjected to more than average levels of one, and more likely many, pollutants. The fact is that Mr. Average does not exist. He is but a figment of the statistician’s imagination.

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