Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thoughts on pollution

"Pollution" can mean different things in different contexts. Here it means something in the human environment that causes harm to humans. Since that can include both natural and manmade things, let's narrow it further to manmade. Finally, to exclude the obviously different situation of someone deliberately trying to poison someone else, let's narrow it further to the inadvertent, the "side effect" of otherwise beneficial activities. Economists call these "external costs." It's what happens when I throw a party on my lawn, pay for the party, but leave my party trash on your lawn for you to clean up. If it's a result of routine, repeated activity, we have what people usually mean by "pollution."

There are four ways to deal with pollution:
  • Harmed party takes harming party to court after the fact. This works for something that happens once or very occasionally. Otherwise, it's pretty cumbersome.
  • If it's a routine occurrence, government regulates the level of emission of the pollutant. This often works, but depending on the type of pollutant and available technology, it can be difficult or very expensive to continue the polluting activity and limit the polluting side effect.
  • If it's a routine occurrence, restrict the use of the pollutant or ban it entirely. This is sometimes feasible, occasionally desirable, but again often expensive or difficult if the underlying polluting activity is to keep going. If that activity is otherwise beneficial, this is hard to justify.
  • Tax the emission of the pollutant and leave it up to the polluter to figure out the best way to limit the emission. Unless something should be tightly restricted or banned, this is usually the best approach, because it's the least cumbersome and most flexible. Ask an economist how to deal with pollution, and that's most likely the answer you'll get.
Governments around the world have spent more than a century coping with the side effects of modern economic development in these ways. In pre-industrial societies, there was pollution too, of course: think of all that horse manure in the streets. But it was on a generally smaller scale and, crucially, no one cared or understood enough to do anything about it. The modern public health movement started in the second half of the 19th century to deal with these side effects of development, because the understanding was there, for the first time, and the scale and concentration of the problem were bigger.

When a pollutant (defined in this way) is around us, how do we gauge its potential for harm? The essential answer is concentration times exposure. The more concentrated it is, the longer we're exposed to it, or both, the more harm. The exact concentrations and exposure times vary from pollutant to pollutant and, to a lesser extent, from person to person. Concentrations in the environment generally fall with time, if the pollution source is stopped.

Some important conclusions follow.

The first is that the most harmful things we are exposed to are the things we do to ourselves. After all, we're exposed to ourselves all the time, and the things we put into our bodies ourselves are generally the most concentrated things we encounter in everyday life. The most obvious, and deadly, is smoking, whether it's tobacco or something else. The smoker is getting a certain pleasure out of it, but the harmful side effect is large and cumulative. Living as we do in a society that likes to think of itself, at least, as free, we inconsistently allow people to do some harmful things to themselves, but not others. It's usually a bad idea to try to stop people from doing such things by force, because force rarely works over time. But that doesn't mean we can't nudge people in the right direction. And it means governments have no excuse for, say, subsidizing growing tobacco.*

The second is that home, school, and workplace hazards are the next on the list. These are the places we spend the most time and often have limited control over and knowledge of what we're exposed to. If the hazards are routine, there's a good case for legal regulation. But where and when we do have control, there's an even stronger case for exercising common sense.

The third is that everything else is generally less important. The reason is that, whatever the exposure times, the concentrations are much lower. Cut off from its source, chemical pollution disperses and transforms over time. Of course, if you live next to a smokestack that's going all the time, say, then you're closer to the "workplace" situation. And occasionally, nature itself mixes in with manmade pollution to concentrate the problem, instead of dispersing it. The classic "smogs" that used to form over industrial cities (smog being a mix of natural dust and water vapor with manmade smoke) are one example. Another familiar to residents to Los Angeles and Mexico City is vertical atmospheric temperature inversion (remember that from last year?), which can trap smoke and other aerosols that would otherwise disperse.

Dividing the world up into the categories of "harmful, neutral, and beneficial" to us is completely separate from dividing it up into the "natural" and the "manmade." Nature has lots of harm out there is store for us if we're not careful. Bacteria blindly doing their thing can sometimes kill a baby or an adult. Insects, snakes, and plants sometimes have deadly poisons. Floods and storms can destroy what we've built and kill us. Certain plants have dioxin-like chemicals no different in their harm from the harm done by artificial ones. There's no malintent involved, although much of what's true about manmade pollution harming us is also true about an insect bite or allergen harming us. Our bodies themselves have defense mechanisms against the harm, at least up to point. How are bodies react to these things is a function only of our bodies and the harmful agent - whether or not it was manmade, whether or not it was the product of evil intent.

Until around 1970 or so, such distinctions and commonalities were taken for granted, and much of the time, they still are today. The rise of the modern environmental movement around 1970, however, changed how we think about these issues, deeply confusing them together, blocking out simple truths about nature that our ancestors had no problem seeing, and injecting agendas into our politics that are superficially about one thing (public health, say, which wasn't discovered by the environmentalist movement) but are really about something else entirely (like stopping economic development, no matter what the harm to humans, or punishing private economic activity simply for being private). The independent distinctions of "natural-manmade" and "beneficial-harmful" were merged. Side effects of civilization, and ultimately civilization itself, were demonized as the results of harmful intent. Since about 40 years ago, such thinking, the groups that promote it, and the politicians who pander to and depend on it, have done real harm in the most advanced countries, especially in the ultra-litigious US. More recently, environmentalist groups and politicians have tried to confuse the subject further by peddling the wishful thinking that regulation (of any kind, beneficial or not) has no or minimal costs. That can't be true; otherwise, people would implement the practice themselves. Even beneficial regulation has costs, but we enjoy the benefit (if it is actually beneficial), and its cost can often be offset by economic progress elsewhere. In poor countries, those options are often not available, and terrible harm has been inflicted there, by denying them (for example) pesticides and, more recently, selectively bred crop seeds that reduce the need for pesticides. The cumulative effect of such abuse of government power is major and persists if nothing is done to reverse it. Such a movement is not about public health, clearly. And it is a movement, not a science.

Economic valuing is based on benefits, costs, and harms to someone. It's meaningless to discuss benefits and costs outside that framework; there are no "intrinsic" costs and benefits without a party benefited or harmed. Since nature as a whole has no "body," no intentions, and no "health" the same way an individual human or animal has, the environmentalist movement has to operate on a metaphysical plane, even as it abuses political and social mechanisms designed for strictly human use. While it claims to speak for "nature," it really speaks for no one but itself.
"According to nature" you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! [Stoicism was an ancient philosophical school that exhorted its followers to "live according to Nature."] Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power - how could you live according to this indifference? Living - is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living - estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative "live according to nature" meant at bottom as much as "living according to life" - how could you not do that? ....

In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law into nature, you want something opposite .... Your pride wants to impose your morality, your ideal, on nature ... you demand that she should be nature "according to the Stoa," and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image - as an immense eternal glorification and generalization of Stoicism. For all your love of truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, so rigidly-hypnotically to see nature the wrong way, namely Stoically, that you are no longer able to see her differently. (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 9)
* While trying to discourage its use. That means that the tobacco has to be exported to other countries. Which it is, and that's government-subsidized too.

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