You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Cloud Nine

Somebody Fouled Up

The pursuit of happiness shapes our manufacture and consumption, work and leisure, conservation and despoliation - activities which can’t go on freely and simultaneously without colliding. You can’t cut a redwood and enjoy its natural majesty, too. It’s the part of public policy to decide how many trees should stand to give pleasure, and how many should be sacrificed to the pursuit of profit by loggers and builders.

In his message to Congress on the environment early this year, President Nixon recommended we “conserve what we have” and “repair the damage already done.” He didn’t mean conserve everything or repair all the damage, since we’re bound to use up some of nature’s gifts and we can’t undo all that’s been done wrong for the past hundred years. But we can begin making more rational, humane decisions about the life that’s worth living, and it need not be a life of poverty. The control and elimination of pollution, the protection of irreplaceable natural resources, beautifying the land, all these must go hand in hand with the prospering of industry. The goal is balance between profiting from and protecting the environment.

James Ridgeway notes in his new book, The Politics of Ecology, that “virtually all our modern programs for controlling pollution begin with the premise that controlling pollution is essential for industrial growth.” Early in this century, progressives and Republican “conservationists,” of whom Theodore Roosevelt was the leading champion, sought to develop resources in an “efficient” manner. “While many people remember the conservationists as forces of good, fighting it out with the special interests to save the land from savage rape, it must be remembered that they were not socialists. They objected to bad business, not to the idea of business. In practice, large corporations could most easily afford to take up the planning and efficiency concepts advocated by the conservationists.”

To the extent that the ecology crusade of 1970 appeals to the President and intelligent businessmen, it appeals to them as altogether consistent with making a buck. Robert O. Anderson, the chairman of Atlantic Richfield, said recently that the auto and petroleum industries “have in some cases valued the wrong kind of efficiency … In the case of the automobile, we have placed a greater value on the kind of efficiency that results in high speed and fast pickup. We should have been—and must now—place a greater value on efficiency of fuel consumption to reduce both pollution and the fuel required per mile of travel.” This view is quite compatible with recycling waste metal, paper and glass (see “The Consumer” by Eliot Marshall, p. 27), with controlling auto emissions and such. For the new technology of pollution control invites rising profits. When there is money to be made from pollution abatement, or if the public can be made to pay for it, corporations will buy stock in the crusade.

Nearly all the haggling that goes on in writing and enforcing antipollution legislation deals with the economics of ecology. Thus, intelligent evaluation of measures proposed to limit pollution requires the reiteration of certain questions: Is it enough, will it work, who will pay for it, is the bill sent to the right address, and is the sacrifice, if any, worth the price? There are scores of cases in which the answers are: It isn’t enough, it won’t work, the public pays, and the polluter gets off the hook.

NO ONE OBJECTS more to air pollution than the presidents of the major polluting companies, but until now they have escaped its consequences as only people with six figure salaries can. They buy homes as far away from their own factories as possible. According to Ralph Nader, James Roche, the chairman of General Motors, a company that is responsible for a third of the air pollution in the nation, lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; John T. Connor, the chairman of Allied Chemical lives in New Vernon, New Jersey; Willis Boyer, president of Republic Steel, lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. If you can’t breathe, roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning, which doesn’t clean the air but makes you feel better.

The Secretary of Interior recently gave Edgar Speer, president of US Steel, a special “clean-water award,” saluting that company’s “initiative in pollution abatement” at two of its facilities. Some weeks later, the US sued US Steel as one of the major polluters. Speer thinks in terms of cost/benefit; we ought not to be carried away by the “dictates of emotion.” He’d weigh carefully the ratio of fish killed and the cost of cleaning up the fish’s habitat in determining whether clean water is worth the price. The chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana, John Swearingen, takes this argument further; “The central question is not whether we should have cleaner water, but how clean, at what cost. . . . Public enthusiasm for pollution control is matched by reluctance to pay even a modest share of the cost. This attitude will have to change.”

Who’s attitude? The public’s or the polluters’? Effective legislation would require Mr. Swearingen to clean up the mess he makes. James Ridgeway would have the government take on injunctive power to force pollution abatement or close down the offending industry. And he would regulate prices so costs could not be passed on to consumers.

Making corporations liable for the harm they do is exceedingly difficult. After the Santa Barbara oil spill, the House and Senate passed liability amendments to the pollution laws. (See “The Seas” by Stephen Solomon, p. 21.) But while the law now requires polluters to clean up oil spills, it does not make them financially responsible to communities, businesses or individuals injured by the spills.

The basic technology to treat sewage and purify water was developed in the 19th century but has never been used on a wide scale. Sewage treatment plants that now exist and those which will be built (in insufficient number) work well enough for human wastes but are often fouled up by industrial waste chemicals. Much of the money spent on these systems goes into the pockets of construction companies and consultant engineers in excess profits. Homeowners pay proportionately more of the bill than industry.

The setting of standards for air and water purity is more often than not done in secret meetings closed to the public on the grounds that they involve companies’ trade secrets. Compliance with standards, themselves set in accordance with industry wishes, is often voluntary, which is to say there is no compliance. Companies with subsidiaries producing devices to control pollution are among the principal polluters.

If the ecology movement of the seventies follows the course of other popular crusades it may be aborted. Attention spans are short, the obstacles formidable, and the idealists without much power. Power and where it resides are the real determinants. If it resides with the Atomic Energy Commission or the nuclear power lobby (see “Water and Air” by Howard G. Paster, p. 24) we may have more and more polluting atomic power plants. If it rests in the petroleum and auto industries, don’t bet on clean cars by 1975, operating with an alternative power source to the internal combustion engine. If the Agriculture Department has its hearing aid turned on only when the pesticide manufacturers speak (see “The Bird and Bees” by Daniel Zwerdling, p. 17), Rachel Carson’s worst fears will be borne out.

The public could wield power by expressing itself, by refusing to take on the primary burden of paying for restoring the environment, and by refusing to be taken in by industry’s PR campaign to make us think industry has all these troubles in mind and in hand. Standard Oil of New Jersey, GM, and Procter &. Gamble have two important things in common. They are polluters on an immense scale. And they advertised themselves as in support of Earth Day. When there are no phosphates in P&G’s detergents and when cars burn clean, we’ll know they were serious.

This article originally ran in the October 31, 1970 issue of the magazine.