The Polluters: the Making of Our chemically Altered Environment by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter. Oxford University Press 2010.
The Polluters is a history of industrial pollution in America from the early days of industry in the 18th century to the changing times of the 1960s and 70s. On page 3 of the book, the authors write:
Wastes were a problem from the earliest days of chemical manufacturing. But the American chemical industry of the nineteenth century lagged far behind its European competitors, and the emissions from its factories drew little notice beyond their immediate surroundings. …As pollution worsened and new problems emerged in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, scientists and the public increasingly saw the need for control and demanded action.
Leaders of the industry recognized the need for cleanup, but they were allergic to government oversight. Chemical companies insisted on doing things themselves, at their own pace, with their own means, and they gathered their forces for the fight to keep the government out. An armament of methods was developed to fend off outside pressure. One of the industry’s common tactics can be summed up as “spill, study, and stall.” When outside pressure to do something about pollution became strong, a study of the problem would be launched as an alternative to expensive action. The study would be carried out by the polluters themselves or, if it was feared that a blatantly self-serving study would lack credibility, under their influence.
…When study could not be avoided, friendly researchers would offer a predetermined conclusion. They would cherry-pick data, design experiments to give a desired answer, or sometimes offer reassurances backed by nothing more than the sheer force of assertion. The exercise of political, financial, and public relations muscle would turn this into “authoritative science,” often in the face of criticism from scientists of much greater attainment.
That, in a few paragraphs, sums up the contents of the following 170 pages. The authors go on to examine various examples and follow the seesawing attempts of assorted individuals to bring industry to heal and curb the unfettered polluting of the nation’s air, water and groundwater resources. Across the years, thousands of new synthetic compounds were developed and released into the environment without testing. Chemicals were treated as safe until proven otherwise, often by some catastrophic event. It was deemed that industry had a right to use available air and water as simple conduits for waste disposal unless there were prior claims for their use. The natural world itself, on the other hand, had no rights whatsoever.
It seemed to me that few stories can be more readily divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”. Not that the authors attempt anything but a balanced report, but the facts speak for themselves. For most of the period under study, industrial leaders found friends in high places, men who were happy to do their bidding. These men condemned to death countless unknown workers and citizens who they failed to protect, often turning a blind eye to clear and readily available scientific evidence showing the dangers of pollutants.
Public concern and awareness rose after the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first Earth Day in April 1970, and highly visible incidents such as the Love Canal scandal. The Clean Air Amendments of 1970 were signed into law. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The Environmental Protection Agency was created. And a Superfund was established to identify and clean up America’s most polluted hot spots in 1980.
However, those hopeful steps of the 1970s have not been sustained. In fact, there have been giant steps backwards. In 2005 Congress, at the behest of then Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of gas driller Halliburton, exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Here in Canada, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have been making giant strides backwards, undoing years of small victories in environmental protection so that corporations may once again pollute unfettered. Even when regulations are in place, polluters are not prosecuted. A recent report showed that Alberta is enforcing fewer than one per cent of potential environmental violations in its open-pit mines.
Even more depressing is the fact that climate change was under discussion in the 1950s. Evidence of rising temperatures had begun to accumulate and by the 60s, prediction of increasing temperatures again appeared in leading scientific publications. Here we are, half a century on, and we have chosen to saddle ourselves, through apathy and fraudulent election practices, with an ineffectual, backwards government that fails to look to the future and refuses to address the inconvenient truth of climate change. The authors note:
The emission of greenhouse gases goes on, protected with the time-honored techniques of toothless laws and twisted science. The tactic of spill, study, and stall, now approaching its centenary, is still in use. Well-funded institutes continue to paste a veneer of scientific research onto political propaganda. Hard truths are countered with convenient but unlikely hopes.