August 20, 2017

The caviar chimera

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 4 No. 3, March 1974. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


The idea that only rich nations can afford a clean environment is perhaps one of the most naïve of all the excuses for more economic growth. Guilty of it is Lord Zuckerman, former Chief Government Scientist. He recently said,

“The big lesson we have learnt is that all environmental improvement depends upon scientific and technical progress. These create both the knowledge of how to avoid pollution and the wealth needed to avoid it.”

Guilty of it too is Anthony Crosland, the Secretary of State for the Environment. He writes,

“Even if we stopped all further growth tomorrow, we should still need to spend huge additional sums on coping with pollution. We have no chance of funding these huge sums from a near static GNP any more than we could find the extra sums we want for health or education or any of our other goals. Only rapid growth would give us any possibility.”

Guilty too is the World Bank whose experts wrote in their report on Limits to Growth, that

“the authors do not fully allow for the fact that higher levels of industrial development also increase the option of these societies to take care of the pollution problems by devoting additional resources to them.”

They forget that when our holidaymakers seek an unspoilt environment it is not Detroit, the industrial Midlands or the valley of the Ruhr to which they travel but to those so-called underdeveloped places which have so far been spared the ‘benefits’ of economic growth.

In addition there appear to be several phases in the development of an industrial society, and as we proceed from the first to the last so is economic activity increasingly destructive. For instance, in the earlier phases, such as those through which the Africans and even the Chinese are now passing, the attitude to waste is very different to that to which we are accustomed.

The Chinese are taught in school to struggle against the four wastes – ‘waste material, waste gas, waste water, waste heat’. Litter is regarded as useful, something to be collected and re-used. As affluence grows with increasing economic growth, so is there a tendency towards a sloppier attitude to waste. When we have reached the present phase, further growth only becomes possible by substituting synthetics for natural products: synthetic fibres for natural ones, detergents for soaps, etc.

Indeed it is Professor Commoner’s thesis that it is this process that has given rise to the present pollution crisis in the USA, where many pollution levels have gone up by between 200 and 2000 percent since 1945, and much of the pollution is difficult, in fact almost impossible, to control. Consider the pollution of our waterways. Industry pours thousands of different chemicals into them every day. As Pastakia points out in a letter to The Times,

“discharges are often at a low level of concentration which escapes detection and are not shown up by fish kills, but whose cumulative effect on the aquatic environment can be extremely damaging.”

This appears to be true in the case of the hormone weed killer in Essex which did considerable damage at concentrations as low as one part in 1000 million. As Mr Sturgess of the Essex River Authority points out, also in a letter to The Times, that “present methods do not even enable one to detect the presence of pollutants in this dilution, let alone face them.”

Even if one could, could we afford to do so? As is pointed out in Limits to Growth, the cost of reducing pollutants from, say, a factory chimney increases exponentially as we try to achieve higher levels of purification. An 80 percent reduction in pollution levels is generally regarded as ambitious. But the cost of trying to do better is generally prohibitive.

Even then, with world economic growth at 6 percent per annum, it would only take 27 years for total pollution levels to reach those that prevailed before the introduction of these prohibitively expensive controls. What is more, many forms of pollution cannot be controlled at all. How, for instance, does one reduce pollution by pesticides or by artificial fertilisers save by not using them? There is also no known method for effectively dealing with radioactive waste.

Taking all these considerations into account it should be clear that economic growth cannot provide a means of controlling the pollution generated by our ever increasing industrial activities. Technology can only solve technological problems. It has nothing to offer against the biological, the social and the political aspects of the problem, which our ‘experts’ do not even take into account.

Lord Zuckerman, Mr Crosland, the World Bank, etc. must be made to understand that it is dangerously irresponsible even to suggest that a clean environment can be achieved in any other way than by reducing man’s impact on it, which must mean reducing, not increasing, economic growth.

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