Our polluted world

September 20, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Humor, Nature

Today’s post isn’t on one of my major themes. Trained in physics, I like looking at nature and understanding patterns.

I noticed something remarkable yesterday when a couple friends talking about visiting Hong Kong and Beijing talked about how polluted those cities’ air is. As we all know,  many (all major? most major?) cities are polluted to where living in them is like smoking packs of cigarettes a day. People outside cities create just as much pollution — often more — than people inside them so even if their air is cleaner, they’re contributing just as much.

I’m no anthropologist, but I think our world once had zero pollution, that the waste humans produced could be used to fertilize crops.

We’ve passed the point where we have some pollution here and there. We live in a world where pollution is normal. We don’t try to avoid it because we can’t.

I hadn’t thought about this before: pollution has become normal. We did this. Dioxin, mercury, loud noise, acid rain, litter, ozone, smog, dead zones in the oceans, benzene, etc. I know you know it. I just couldn’t help remarking on it.

It’s easy to talk about good, bad, right, and wrong, or to talk about how things are getting better or worse or debate about what numbers say what about the condition of the Earth’s biosphere. I’m not trying to depress anyone or to stoke optimism about what we can do about it. I’m just observing one thing and asking how our environment’s change has changed us.

Is the next step that we take for granted not just pollution, but that what we now consider serious consequences become inevitable? That we talk about cancer like we now talk about diabetes, as a disease we live with as normal?

Wait a minute, some forms of diabetes didn’t use to be a disease we lived with as normal. Even our bodies being polluted has become normal.

The Onion often says it best with satire:

Report: Apocalypse Actually Happened 3 Years Ago

August 17, 2011 MENLO PARK, CA—Though the event went largely unremarked upon at the time, a report published Monday by the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that the apocalypse, or end of the world, occurred three years ago. “According to our data, the total collapse of all human civilization occurred on or around April 3, 2008,” said foundation representative Jodie Palmenterri, citing numerous instances of environmental disaster, humanitarian catastrophe, and economic ruin as unambiguous signs that the world had ended. “Those who have worried for years that human culture was headed toward calamity can rest easy, because it already happened. We are living in a postapocalyptic world. This is it.” Palmenterri went on to say that because the apocalypse does not resemble the eschatological predictions of any major religion, it’s safe to assume the gods have all forsaken us.

EDIT: a day after I posted this, the New York Times posted a long article on the fiftieth anniversary of the publishing of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Here are a few more articles from around then — on the industry’s response and Carson’s obituary and a review of the book.

Of the many passages that caught my attention, this one stood out as relevant and meaningful. Past generations probably couldn’t have conceived of how we’ve polluted our world. I hope that doesn’t mean we can’t conceive of what we and future generations are doing.

If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

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