• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability commandment #5

Don't be toxic.

November 20, 2014

Don't poison the soil, the air or the water.

Without good, clean air, any one of us is dead in a matter of minutes.  Without good clean water, in days.  Without good, fertile (I hesitate to say "clean") soil, in months or  years.  None of these resources is infinitely available.  Each has a capacity to restore itself to good condition, but that capacity is both time-dependent and tightly constrained.  And yet thousands of activities that each of us living in developed societies take for granted poison the soil, the air and the water on a daily basis.  We're killing ourselves, and we've got to stop kidding ourselves.

To maintain soil fertility, you need to replace key minerals which are taken up by plants or leached out by water.  But you also need to assure a healthy mix of worms, grubs, insects and microscopic flora and fauna.  Chemical herbicides and pesticides used in commercial agriculture, home gardening, even lawn maintenance are specifically designed and sold to kill off "undesirable" plants and animals.  But while they're arguably effective at achieving their desired result, they're also inarguably effecting in killing off non-targeted organisms at the same time.  Their category names end in -cide, which is to say "killer".  Related to such lovely words as homicide, regicide, suicide, fratricide, and genocide.  By definition, their poisons, and poisons are inherently blunt instruments. 

Soil and water are both routinely poisoned by such activities as mining, refining and industrial stock farming.  Chemicals used in the first two, and large quantities of manure from the last, are routinely disposed of under circumstances which can only generously be called "controlled".  Whether it's heavy metals, petroleum distillates or other toxic wastes, least-cost disposal methods range from simply dumping it where no one seems to  be looking, through lagoon storage and open-truck transportation, to burying in old steel drums which are bound (sooner or later) to rust through.  Residues remain in the soil for millennia, or wash downstream to poison lakes, rivers and oceans.  Environmental regulations are sometimes effective and sometimes enforced but, as with politicking inside the Washington Beltway, the real scandal isn't what happens that's illegal, it's what happens that's entirely within the law.

Poisoning the air doesn't, to my mind, include emitting carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide -- for all its impact as a greenhouse gas -- isn't poisonous.  But soot, sulfur dioxide, ammonia and a raft of other gases are.  (I know, soot's not a gas).  Yet we burn fuels which produce soot and sulfur dioxide, and we're constantly shipping and handling liquids that convert to ammonia and other toxic gases if not kept under pressure.  And let's face it, anytime we ship and handle any fluid in large quantities, some of it's bound to escape.  There are levels of exposure to most of these chemicals which are generally regarded as not harmful, but the truth of the matter is that no level of exposure to any toxin can ever be proven to be entirely without harm.  There's always a risk.  And when what's being put at risk is essential to the continuance of life as we know it, that's not a risk we should take lightly.  Still, we do.  Every day.

Colleges and universities shouldn't teach that any activity which ever risks releasing any small amount of any toxic substance into the ecosystem must stop immediately, that's not reasonable and it's simply not possible.  But what we also shouldn't be doing is teaching, by implication, that such activities are considered harmless.  And that's what most of us are doing, albeit unintentionally.  When we teach with reference to any practice or process or product which involves the discharge of toxic substances, and yet don't even mention that discharge or the predictable damage it creates, we're normalizing that practice, etc.  We're implying, by omission, that the practice is perfectly acceptable.  We're facilitating our students' ignorance of the problem.

For some disciplines such as environmental science, industrial engineering and agricultural economics, the problem of toxic wastes is something which has to be addressed head-on and, in my limited experience, that's quite often done.  Whether the problem of toxins is given adequate weight is a value judgment, and not one I want to argue about right now.  But other disciplines (e.g., nutrition, marketing, civil engineering, planning and architecture) also need to grapple explicitly with these issues and, again in my limited experience, often do not.  Social sciences (history, sociology, anthropology) can engage the effects of toxins over long term and societal scale.  The humanities (particularly literature and cultural studies) can address the deleterious effects of toxic processes in specific cases and contexts.  (Example: the south-eastern quadrants of many industrial cities became the minority/lower-class wards during the late 19th and early 20th centuries because that's where industrial fumes and odors tended to be blown most often.)

The development of the society we all accept as "normal" has been fraught with behaviors destructive of people, cultures, soil, air and water.  Some of those behaviors, such as slavery, have been more or less reversed in recent years.  Some, such as genocide, are no longer reversible.  But a good many, including many forms of toxic emission, continue apace even today.  A large part of the reason is that our students (and the adults they become after they leave our campuses) don't know about them, don't see them, have been tacitly encouraged not to engage with them, haven't been forced as part of their education about the world in which they live to be aware of them.  Awareness doesn't assure action, but a lack of awareness is a pretty good way of assuring inaction.  And inaction to stop the poisoning of vital natural resources is, in the long run, simply not survivable.


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