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---November 14, 1989---
News and resources for environmental justice.
Environmental Research Foundation
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The earth looks large. As you gaze out your window at the landscape (or cityscape or seascape), it looks immense. But the appearance of great size is deceiving. The biosphere (the part of the earth that supports life) is a thin film on the surface of the planet. All but 1% of the air is contained in the lowest 20 miles of the atmosphere. The oceans average only 2.5 miles deep and at their deepest they are only 7 miles.

If the surface of the planet were smooth, without valleys or ridges, it would be evenly covered with water to a depth of one and three-quarter miles. Ocean water would account for all but 165 feet of that depth. That 165 feet of fresh water would consist of 140 feet of water from glacial ice, 15 feet from groundwater, and four or five inches from all the lakes and rivers; a last inch would hold the moisture content of the air. Together, the air and water on earth weigh only 1/4300 as much as the earth itself, the relationship of one pound to more than two tons. We inhabit a stone, partly bare, partly dusted with grains of disintegrated rock, upon which rests a thin film of air and water no thicker, relative to the size of the earth, than the fuzz on a peach.

The human population on earth is now roughly five billion people. We increase by 85 million people each year; by the year 2000, we will be six billion. Eighty percent of the global population lives in developing countries--countries that want to build industry modeled after Japan, Europe and America. But already we 20% who are industrialized have become a force large enough to destabilize the biosphere. Our mining, agricultural and industrial activities now move materials around on a scale that in many cases approaches the size of nature's own forces--and in some cases exceeds them.

For example, nature produces 80 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year while humans produce 20 billion tons through the combustion of fossil fuels. In CO2 production, we humans are 25% as large as all of nature, and gaining. But even though our CO2 production has not yet matched nature's, in the past century we have increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere from 260 parts per million (ppm) to 325 ppm--a 25% increase across the entire planet. This is the cause of the "greenhouse effect." And each year brings another steady increase with no end in sight.

Nature mobilizes 50 million tons of sulfur each year in new plant growth, but humans release more than twice as much (120 million tons) by petroleum refining and combustion of coal and oil. By this measure, we are already twice as large as nature. Nature mobilizes 63 million tons of nitrogen each year but, through fertilizers and fuel combustion, humans release 215 million tons; here we are already more than three times as large as nature, and gaining. Small wonder that sulfur and nitrogen, combined, have changed the character of rain on a vast scale, making it as acid as vinegar across the eastern U.S., southern Canada, and northern Europe.

By some other measures, we humans dwarf nature. For example, we inject twice as much arsenic into the atmosphere as nature does, seven times as much cadmium, and 17 times as much lead. Measured by the metals that nature moves into the oceans via river discharges, we humans mobilize (through mining) 13 times as much iron as nature does, 36 times as much phosphorous, and 110 times as much tin. Small wonder that we find ourselves destabilizing the planet's mineral cycles, disturbing weather patterns, distressing vast regions of water and vegetation. We are like a giant blind mechanic, hammering the planet with our technology. Yet we are dependent upon nature for everything we own and everything we are. It is past time to take stock, to cut back, to get smart.

There are two basic ways to control pollution: (1) contain it all ("zero discharge"); or (2) wait until someone is harmed and can prove they have been harmed, then control whatever caused the harm. This second way ("prove harm"-see RHWN #154) is being tried by the industrialized world today. This strategy is failing in the sense that the planet is rapidly deteriorating as a fit place for humans to live. Furthermore, the deterioration is accelerating. The total stress on the planet seems to be increasing between 5% and 6% each year, year after year. Figure 1 shows what this looks like.

Figure 1 shows "total ecological demand" that we humans are putting on the earth, starting in 1880 and projecting forward to the year 2020. The demand of 1880 is one unit, so Figure 1 shows, for example, that total human demand on the environment in 1980 was 258 times as large as it was in 1880; by 1990 it will be 448 times as large; by the year 2000 it will be 776 times as large. By 2020, it will be 2333 times as large. That is the consequence of exponential growth (see RHWN #149). The total demand doubles every 13 years.

Zero discharge of materials from our mining, agricultural, and industrial processes would buy us two major benefits: dramatically reduced pollution, and an indefinitely expanded resource base through recycling. In the absence of serious controls on what we release into the environment, we will destroy the earth's ecosystems and we will deplete our supplies of essential minerals. Both pollution and depletion are already far advanced.

The most equitable and least disruptive program to achieve zero discharge would set mandatory dates for terminating emissions some distance in the future but would penalize delay in voluntary adoption of zero discharge by imposing chronologically graduated emissions taxes. That is to say, we must set the goal of zero discharge (as we did in the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set the goal at 1985). But in addition, we must tax emissions, to give polluters a constant incentive to cut emissions. The tax must increase steeply with time.

The "prove harm" alternative to zero discharge allows us to pollute until harm is proven; then we force a cutback. But this is an expensive way to go because (a) it guarantees that we will have many pollution victims before we have controls; and (b) it is cheaper to design a facility for zero discharge ("closed loop" technology) than it is to design it for no controls, then fix it up ("retrofit" it) to meet initial control standards, then fix it again when the standards tighten.

Zero discharge is understandable by anyone. It is unambiguous. Furthermore, it is the only strategy for which the costs and consequences can be determined now and which can be carried out using the knowledge we have now.

Support for the strategy of zero discharge draws its strength from our common experience that people up to now have not recognized pollution-caused dangers until it is too late to prevent major disruption. Acid rain, the greenhouse effect on global climate, ozone depletion, and the massive problem of chemical and radioactive waste cleanup that we face--these are just the most obvious manifestations of a pollution strategy (first prove harm, then take remedial action) that has not worked and cannot work.

Justifiable fear of pollution damage--and the perception that the authorities are risking our lives and the lives of our children recklessly--are resulting in confrontations, mistrust, and stalemate. The situation can only get worse as the century progresses. A commitment to zero discharge offers hope of solving those problems.

Finally, zero discharge overcomes the worst aspect of "prove harm" strategies: acceptance of defeat. Under a "prove harm" program, we are always fighting our way back after damage has taken place, and we are forced to accept continuing damage at some reduced level instead of watching damage come to an end and new growth begin. Under a "prove harm" strategy, we expect to pay enormous sums of money to reduce pollution, yet we do not expect to reverse the deterioration. It is a thoroughly depressing strategy which drives people to despair. Zero discharge offers humans real hope.

This weeks' newsletter, and last week's, have drawn heavily (including long unattributed quotations) from essays by John Gofman, who directs the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, P.O. Box 11207, San Francisco, CA 94101, to which gifts are tax-deductible; and from a book by Theodore Taylor and Charles Humpstone, RESTORATION OF THE EARTH (NY: Harper & Row, 1973), who first proposed seriously that all pollution should be contained and not released. We hope you can get past this book's love affair with nuclear technology; the book contains many useful ideas. Our data on natural vs. human activities are taken from it (pg. 24), from the journal NATURE Vol. 333 (May 12, 1988), pgs. 134-139 and from Carroll Wilson, MAN'S IMPACT ON THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), pg. 116. Our Figure 1 is derived from Wilson, pg. 22.

Total Ecological Demand
(The Demand of Year 1880 = one unit)
2400          Figure 1
2100          Total ecological demand on Earth's               *
.             resources from mining, industry and
1800          agriculture during the years 1880               *
.             through 2020, assuming continued
1500          growth at 5.5% per year.                       *
1200          Total demand is doubling every 13 years.      *
900                                                        *
600                                                      *
.                                                     *
300                                              *
.                                       *
0   *       *       *         *
1880  .  1990  .  1920  .  1940  .  1960  .  1980  .  2000  .  2020

--Peter Montague, Ph.D.

Descriptor terms: zero discharge; carbon dioxide; greenhouse effect; ldcs; economic development; acid rain; acid precipitation; nitrogen; sulfur; lead; arsenic; recycling; risk assessment; statistics; global environmental problems;

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