Can Man Solve the Problem?
IT IS one thing to know what the problem is and how it got here. Solving it is something else.
Can it be done? Well, a healthy human body can heal a wound if given decent care. So too the earth can heal its wounds if given the right kind of care.
But man must work in harmony with the natural laws already set up for this earth. Those laws will not change. Man has to. There is no other choice at all.
What, then, are the prospects that man will bring himself back into harmony with the earth?
A few streams, a lake here and there, the air over a few cities—that is the extent of success man has had in trying to reverse the disastrous trend. What of the overall situation?
Facing the overall situation realistically, there is little ground for optimism. For example, look what happened in New York city. Back in 1955 its air pollution commissioner predicted: “In 10 years, our city will be a good place to inhale in.” A researcher also predicted: “By 1965 the air breathed by a man crossing 42nd St. will be as fresh as the air in a Swiss mountain pass.”
Persons living in New York city today would call those predictions ridiculous. New York air is so heavily polluted now that much of the time it is rated either ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Those optimistic predictions were not based on reality.
James Skehan, an official of Boston College, gave this realistic appraisal: “Getting the earth back to an acceptable level of pollution is going to be about as difficult as stopping all the wars that ever were or ever will be.” Has man stopped war? No. In 1969 the Norwegian Academy of Sciences calculated that since 3600 B.C.E. the world has had only 292 years of peace, but 14,531 wars that killed hundreds of millions of people. And our century has seen the worst ever.
Can Laws Do It?
Can new laws, or better enforcement of laws, stem the tide? Without doubt, they can help. But late in 1970 U.S. News & World Report noted that air and water pollution in the United States was increasing “in spite of stricter regulations and substantial expenditures by government and industry.”
A much-publicized new law in the United States affects automobiles. After January 1, 1975, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in exhausts from new cars must be reduced by at least 90 percent compared to 1970 models. After January 1, 1976, nitrogen oxides must be reduced at least 90 percent also.
While that is encouraging, note what Russell Train, presidential adviser on environment, says: “We do project that pollution from automobile exhaust will be on a downward curve until about 1985. After that, even with the most pollution-free internal-combustion engine that we can now foresee, the sheer growth in numbers of cars will start the curve going up again.”
A sensible suggestion to cut down on land pollution is to recycle, that is, to reuse material instead of throwing it away.
At present in the United States less than 10 percent of textiles, rubber and glass are reused. Only 20 percent of paper and zinc, 30 percent of aluminum, and about half of copper, lead and iron are reused. The increasing production of all those things, then, comes primarily from new sources, such as new cotton, wood and ore.
Why is not more material recycled? One reason is illustrated by a company that separates garbage and sells the materials. The Wall Street Journal comments about the owner: “He’s losing $2 a ton on each ton of garbage he handles because he can’t sell most of the materials he salvages.” An example: of 1,200 tons of paper he reprocessed, he could sell only 200 tons. Nobody wanted the rest.
Will the People Do It?
Whatever the remedies proposed, they all boil down to one fundamental fact: for success, the overwhelming majority of people must apply them. Is that likely?
Audubon magazine reported that a soft-drink company marketed 600,000 cases of returnable bottles in the New York city area. Each bottle returned would bring a cash payment. But in six months the bottles were all thrown away. The people of New York had forfeited $720,000 in deposits! They did not want to bother returning bottles.
To avoid air pollution in cities from too many automobiles, it is proposed that cities build rapid-transit systems—such as fast trains taking commuters to work and eliminating their cars. But of this, Mitchell Gordon says in his book Sick Cities: “A recent survey of Chicago commuters revealed that only 18 percent of them would forsake their automobiles even if the transit rides were free.” He also said: “Half of them still would not make the trip in a public conveyance if they were paid 35 cents every time they stepped aboard.”
Will people at least cooperate by not littering, that is, throwing rubbish where they should not? Ted Keatley, a New York State Fish and Game Association official, wearily said: “I can’t think of anything to stop the litterbug. The last resort is appealing to his self-respect, but I haven’t much hope in that area, either.”
Obviously a great change in attitude is required on the part of people. Yet, in The Unheavenly City, author Edward Banfield comments: “How is such a change to be brought about? Until the means are specified, this ‘solution’ must be dismissed as utopian. . . . The fact is, however, that no one knows how to change the culture of any part of the population.”
To illustrate the difficulty, there is the case of the television reporter in Florida who exposed the heavy polluting by a certain company. Soon, he received phone calls from employees of the company threatening him bodily harm if he did not ‘lay off.’ They were afraid they would lose their jobs if the company closed down.
So while many people may talk about stopping pollution, the vast majority are more intent on their own selfish pursuits, not wanting to give up any of their advantages for the sake of others.
Thus, while much talk goes on, the problem worsens, as industrialization increases and earth’s population ‘explodes.’ And those in a position to know admit they do not have the answers! For instance, specialists at Hawaii’s Department of Health say: “There are no easy answers in sight. . . . at present, no acceptable alternatives exist.”
What Would It Really Take?
In reality, man’s solving the problem would call for dismantling the modern industrial way of life to a great extent. It would mean permanently reversing the trend toward further industrialization.
Is that likely to happen? Will people all cooperate to give up a goodly portion of the conveniences, products, money and pleasures now enjoyed in an industrial society, exchanging these for clean air, water and land? Well, have they ever cooperated together to rid the earth of war, prejudice, crime, poverty, hunger? Has everyone stopped smoking cigarettes, selling them, or producing tobacco for them because they are proven killers? Have people given up fornication because venereal disease increases?
So do you really think that government, industry and the common man will have a sudden change of heart on a mass scale and reverse the direction of the industrial way of life? Dr. Rene Dubos, a pollution authority, says: “In my opinion, there is no chance of solving the problem of pollution—or the other threats to human life—if we accept the idea that technology is to rule our future.”
The experts are truly at their wits’ end. What, then, is really needed? The publication Let’s Live, of March 1970, suggests: “It would appear that the genius of a Solomon is required to solve all the pollution problems of our time.”
Is such genius available? Just what is the solution?