In the wake of the disastrous chemical spill in West Virginia and the crazy weather we’ve been having across the US over the past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change and pollution. I was chatting with the folks down at Revolution Books the other day, and one of them said “the only way to reverse the destruction of the planet is revolution!” Well, fair enough, but I’m increasingly convinced that right now we’re living with decisions made more than a century ago, when pollution ran unchecked. My mother grew up in London in the 1940s and 1950s, and I remember her telling me about the pea-soup fogs she grew up with, especially Great Smog of 1952, which enveloped the city and killed about 12,000 people from respiratory illness. A lot of that air pollution was caused by coal-burning fires, which various Clean Air Acts did away with; when I was growing up in the 1970s, the London air was remarkably clear.
These kinds of cause-and-effect environmental measures are pretty easy to see: reduce the pollutants and you get less crap in the air, people can breathe more easily, and everyone doesn’t end up coated in particulates. Essentially, that’s the difference between London and Los Angeles (or, as some researchers from UCLA found, even between different neighbourhoods in LA) or, to push the contrast harder, between London and Beijing. And, as we’re finding, what pollutes in Beijing doesn’t stay in Beijing, but finds its way around the globe, with the added irony that this pollution is in significant part a result of factories in China making crap that would otherwise have been manufactured, along with the attendant particulates, in Europe and the US.
But what we’re looking at now in terms of climate change has long and deep roots. As this terrific website by the American Institute of Physics shows, we’re living with the results of events that started off in the nineteenth century and then just kept going. More importantly, we’re having to deal with the aftermath of an idea common to the beginnings of industrialization: that the damage we do is short-term and reversible. Of course, the discovery of climate change came pretty shortly after the discovery of the fact of various ice ages, which people had nothing to do with. And everyone recognized that major environmental events like volcanoes had commensurate effects on the weather. But, as the AIP argues pretty convincingly, there was a significant lag between doing the damage and recognizing it. Soot from factories in Western Europe found its way onto the Alps, causing a glacial retreat of over half a mile between 1860 and 1930, even though the planet was going through the Little Ice Age, which caused temperatures to drop throughout Europe by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
An image like this does a pretty good job of showing that the planet’s been going through climate change steadily (if unevenly) for quite a while.
But these numbers don’t include other kinds of equally common pollution from the nineteenth century, whose legacy we’re still living with now, water pollution in particular. Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, Philadelphia’s sewer system dumped raw and partially treated sewage into the Delaware River. As this website shows, creating a sewage system in the city may have spared Philly residents the horrors of typhus and cholera, but it also took over creeks and tributaries to establish sewage lines, and before filtration the sewers did little more than remove waste from homes and redistribute it into various rivers and streams. Nearer to home for me, the Gowanus Canal was a nasty soup of effluvia — sewage, industrial waste, and paint factory run-off, within a few decades of its construction in 1869 (apparently, it was so disgusting and weird-looking, it was nicknamed “Lavender Lake.” I had no idea). It’s hard to know what people thought would be the end result of all this dumping. It’s possible that they just didn’t care, or that they assumed that cities had always been repositories of different kinds of filth, and this was just the most recent incarnation of that. Certainly, the focus of the American Transcendentalists (taking a leaf from the book of their British and German Romanticist predecessors) on the purity and sacredness of nature allowed ruling class Americans to essentially write off urban and industrial areas as inevitably tainted, and focus instead on the unspoiled parts of the landscape. Plus, as a recent article by Jonathan Rosen about the extinction of the Passenger pigeon suggests, white Americans just assumed there’d be more of whatever they screwed up available: more land, more water, more resources.
It’s the combination of these beliefs that seem to endure today, with a nice dose of neoliberal individualism and climate denialism thrown in for good measure. In the late 1920s, when Monsanto starting dumping PCBs into the Hudson, it’s not clear that anyone thought that the river couldn’t just clean itself. Strip mining and mountaintop removal were accompanied by assurances that once they were finished, coal companies could put the landscape back together again: no harm, no foul (and lest we think that strip mining is a thing of the past, this article shows that it’s still kicking). Likewise fracking in Pennsylvania and, if gas companies have their way, New York State.
My kids are thrilled for the snow day they’ll be getting tomorrow. Taking the longer view, I’m less inclined to see smooth sledding.