The Enemy is Us
IN our increasingly fast-paced, prepackaged, disposable society, citizens of out fragile earth need to take a close look at the environmental costs of the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.
In the current issue ofThe Atlantic, Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France Stanley H. Hoffman '58 points to "the phenomena of overconsumption and underinvestment; insufficient industrial productivity; rigidity, waste, and short-sightedness in industry," as the reason behind the decline of U.S. competitiveness in the world economy.
A similar tunnel-vision mentality underlies our drive to place convenience above all other considerations. We fret and worry over the crisis of solid waste disposal, but God forbid we should have to do without our disposable diapers, plastic six-pack harnesses and styrofoam coffee cups.
The litany of environmental hazards associated with our throw-away society is old news. Deteriorating styrofoam releases chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), resulting in serious depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer. A group of British scientists reported in 1985 that the ozone layer over Antartica had been diminished by 40 percent. Despite global agreements to curb their use, CFCs' destructive potential lasts long after they are released. And even CFC- free styromfoams are not harmless; they will clog our landfills for centuries to come.
In the face of dwindling landfill space in their own countries, many companies in industrialized nations simply pay developing countries to accept their wastes. In a strict Ec 10 interpretation of the transaction, everything is OK. Both parties presumably benefit from a mutually agreeable exchange, even when that exchange involves something as fiscally myopic as cash for environmental destruction.
But from a moral standpoint, the deal is clearly indefensible. Developed nations are using their inherent advantage of wealth to foist off a lop-sided deal on people who, through no fault of their own, have no better choice.
What's worse, most of the Third World countries that accept the waste are even less adequately prepared to deal with it than the nations that send it. Without sophisticated facilities to dispose of the waste properly, it often contaminates the water supply and the surrounding land.
BUT even as we condemn waste-exporting companies for their insensitivity to the impact of their deadly trade on Third World inhabitants, we can see that their balance sheets leave them little choice. Any company with sufficient ethics to look beyond the bottom line is put at an immediate disadvantage vis-a-vis less scrupulous competitors. If any company is permitted to do it, all must out of necessity follow.
The problem of contamination is not exclusive to distant lands. As the domestic agricultural sector becomes increasingly corporatized, more emphasis is placed on the all-important bottom line, no matter what the environmental costs. The potential health hazards of pesticides are just now beginning to be realized.
The use of pesticides is not vital to the well-being of the agricultural industry. According to Arnold Professor of Science William H. Bossert '59, despite the growers' claims of substantial declines in productivity, the actual difference in yield when no chemical pesticides are used is more in the range of 10-15 percent.
The situation seems particularly ludicrous when storage facilities are overflowing and farmers are being paid not to produce. In addition, the slight loss in revenue would probably be recovered in the savings on the cost of these nefarious substances, which are expensive in their own right.
EACH of us makes economic decisions everyday that worsen the environmental crisis. It is therefore within our capacity to take steps to reverse it. Although business decisions made at the corporate and national levels bear proximate responsibility for most environmental destruction, the choices we make as consumers ultimately render us just as culpable.
Every time we drive somewhere unnecessarily, every time we eat a meal using styrofoam containers and plastic utensils, every time we use aerosol sprays, every time we pass over slightly discolored apples in the produce section in favor of shiny, pesticide-treated ones, we are increasing the economic incentives for companies to maul the environment.
It is all too easy to believe ourselves absolved of any responsibility for environmental destruction. After all, none of us has ever poured a barrel of toxic waste into a pristine stream. The very thought should apall us. But in the end, it is our adherence to the culture of convenience that leads others to such actions.
It is time that we reassessed our priorities and put the lure of creature comforts into proper perspective. Depriving ourselves of life's little luxuries will take effort. But what are the alternatives? To paraphrase former Sen. Edmund M. Muskie, do we really want to sacrifice posterity for the sake of prosperity?
Past civilizations have left us a rich legacy. The Greeks and Romans of classical antiquity will be remembered forever for their philosophical, technological and artistic masterpieces. We, too, have a legacy to leave to future generations: our mind-boggling technological breakthroughs. But we must ask ourselves for what our period will ultimately be remembered--a planet choked in its own decaying wastes?
Surely it is important for our leaders to protect the environment with the power of public policy. But it is equallly imperative that each of us make individual sacrifices if we are to bequeath a habitable planet to our children.